If you are sitting at your computer reading this, you might be doing as much to damage your health as if you’d just lit a cigarette. But you probably already knew that.
The dangers of sitting and of the sedentary lifestyle have been well reported for years now. The former will shorten your lifespan by weeks, possibly years. The latter will significantly raise your risks for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some cancers.
Some of the 30 million Chinese reported to be still living in caves might have missed the news, but most others have heard. The problem is nobody seems to be actually listening, according to a study published Tuesday in The Lancet – a respected, peer-reviewed, London-based medical journal.
Globally overall, few appear to have paid any attention, according to the team of authors headed by Regina Guthold of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, and “insufficient activity has increased in high-income countries over time.”
WHO has been looking at the problem of people doing nothing – physically, at least – for a decade because of the broad health implications.
“The health benefits of physical activity are well established and include a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, and breast and colon cancer,” the Lancet study notes. “Additionally, physical activity has positive effects on mental health, delays the onset of dementia, and can help the maintenance of a healthy weight.
“In recognition of this strong link between physical activity and major non-communicable diseases, member states of WHO agreed to a 10 percent relative reduction in the prevalence of insufficient physical activity by 2025, as one of the nine global targets to improve the prevention and treatment of non-communicable diseases.”
WHO’s efforts to reach that goal have so far gone nowhere. The international organization is now suggesting new solutions likely to run into opposition in goodly parts of the U.S.
Get out of the car
Inactivity goes up, the study says, as countries “transition towards more sedentary occupations and personal motorized transportation….National policy needs to be implemented to encourage non-motorized modes of transportation, such as walking and cycling, and to promote participation in active recreation and sports in leisure time.
“Effective policies include improved provision of cycling and walking infrastructure, improving road safety, and creating more opportunities for physical activity in public open spaces and parks, in workplaces, and in other local community settings.”
Infrastructure, however, costs money, and in many places – including Alaska – taxpayers fail to see the value in getting people moving. They’d apparently prefer to pretend the added costs of health care are a myth.
“Seattle’s leaders are working to build a network of connected bike lanes, but every inch of pavement is contested and tensions run high,” the Seattle Times reported from the Emerald City, so named for how green it is.
“The city’s been trying to build one 1.4-mile stretch of bike path in Ballard for nearly three decades,” David Gutman reported. “A long-planned bike lane on Fourth Avenue has been pushed back to 2021.”
Alaska’s largest city, meanwhile, is still only talking about a plan for a plan. Anchorage records indicate that at the last meeting of the plan planning group, there was finally “a map of possible highest pedestrian need and a preliminary draft proposed bicycle network.”
Anchorage is a city with excellent greenbelt trails for walking or leisurely riding a bicycle, but as a place designed to get around on foot or by bike, it is handicapped. It is a city of unconnected neighborhoods, bike trails that dead-end with no hint of connection to anything, and neighborhoods far removed from even a corner convenience store.
But Alaska’s largest city still offers better routes for non-motorized travel than communities in some other U.S. states where there is nothing. Guthold and her group recognized a wide disparity in many of the countries in their study.
“The fact that activity varies greatly across countries, even within regions, suggests that the factors that influence inactivity lie mostly at the national, subnational, or community level, which is where policies are needed to increase physical activity,” they wrote.
What those policies might be are unclear, but telling people that it is in their own best interest to get moving clearly hasn’t worked.
“Our data show that progress towards the global target set by WHO member states to reduce physical inactivity by 10 percent by 2025 has been too slow and is not on track. Levels of insufficient physical activity are particularly high and still rising in high-income countries, and worldwide, women are less active than are men.”
The study suggests “bold leadership and full engagement” might change the trend and argues that getting people out of their seats and moving “could generate significant returns because policies that support increasing physical activity can provide other benefits to health, local economies, community wellbeing, and environmental sustainability.”
The lingering problem is that none of those latter ideas have gained much traction in the high-income countries where societal success is today measured not by what physical labor you do, but by what physical labor you don’t have to do.
And then there is the machine in front of you. There is some debate about Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) is a true addiction or not, but it is pretty clear from the research that some people spend more time looking at a computer screen than is good for their health.
Some of that can come from the simple volume of hours spent sitting at keyboard. So get up now and move. It’s good for you.