Can We Stop Becoming More and More Sedentary?

The past several decades have seen us becoming a country of sitters.  We spend less and less time in physical activity because on the one hand we don’t have to and, on the other, we don’t want to. Getting to work, to shops, supermarkets, social and religious events, movies, concerts, or restaurants is rarely accomplished by walking or bike riding to the destination. This is changing in urban area where bike lanes are gradually replacing traffic or parking lanes. Still, bike riders are still very much in the minority, and even more so when inclement weather makes riding uncomfortable or dangerous. Walking is still a preferred mode of transporting oneself in cities like New York, where the pedestrian often arrives sooner than a car due to traffic congestion. But many cities, and certainly suburban and rural areas, are too spread out or lack sidewalks to make walking to work or the supermarket possible. And then there is a matter of time. A few weeks ago, I decided to walk to a supermarket located about 2 ½ miles from where I live. It was a beautiful spring Sunday and the walk was in lieu of a visit to the gym. The five-mile round trip took a good part of the morning and, combined with carrying a knapsack heavy with groceries back home, I am disinclined to repeat the experience.

We also don’t move enough because work or school necessitates sitting at a desk in a meeting or lecture, in a library, or in an office seeing clients or patients. To be sure, some occupations require physical activity such as running after toddlers in a daycare center or hammering sheet rock in a construction site.  But many occupations now require less physical activity than in the past. Our mail carrier uses a small van to deliver the mail; several years ago he would have walked.  We no longer have to walk to a bank to deposit a check or withdraw money. The cell phone takes care of money-less payments and our groceries, along with everything that we need, can be delivered to our door. Devices, which send signals remotely, like the television remote and the more sophisticated smartphone, have further reduced our need and desire to move. Why get up to turn off a light if your phone will do it? Why sweep the floor if your cute robotic device takes care of the dirt?

Of course, our almost constant use of the cell phone has also reduced our physical activity. In a nearby park people sit on benches hunched over their cell phones rather than walking, or sit on workout benches in my gym checking messages, rather than lifting weights.

Thus it is not surprising that our population is now even more sedentary than it was ten years ago.  A report in last week’s JAMA (April 23) analyzed sedentary behavior or, more simply, hours sitting, in almost 52,000 participants who took part in a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Three age groups were involved: children from 5-11, adolescents 12-19, and adults 20 years and older. People were asked how much time they spent each day sitting at work, with friends, commuting, reading, playing cards, watching television or using a computer.

About two-thirds of the participants in each age group spent at least two hours a day watching television. The survey did not include people who might binge watch all the episodes of a particular program for hours.  About half the people surveyed sat in front of their home computer for an hour or more each day. This time spent sitting was in addition to the time spent at their computers at work or at school. Moreover, the amount of sitting time may have been underestimated because the survey did not look at time people spent with their cellphones and tablets at home, in coffee shops, or while traveling. When all the sitting time was added up, the researchers found that as a country we are sitting about 8 hours a day compared with about 7 hours ten years ago.

The report describes such stark consequences of sedentary behavior that the reader feels compelled to stand up and walk around while reading about the increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and overall mortality.  However, the authors offer no specific countermeasures to decrease our sedentary behavior.

Since increasing the time we spend not sitting should have positive effects on our health, it is surprising that so little has been done to accomplish this.  Apps will monitor our activity and may increase our motivation to move more, but in a passive way. There is no app that acts as one’s mother to say, “Turn off the computer and go outside and play.”

It should be possible to program computers, tablets, phones and even television sets to make us move. If cars brake when we are too inattentive to do so ourselves, and keep us from drifting from one lane to another, our devices should be able to make us stand up, walk, stretch and maybe do some exercises. My computer shuts down to install an update even when I don’t want it to.  What if my computer or tablet shut down when it detected my inertia for 50 minutes and won’t go back on until I move?  My cell phone tells me how much screen time I use, but why not tell me to stop bending over the screen, stand up straight and go for a walk?  We all get fidgety watching televised advertisements for drugs that will allow us to float through a field of butterflies with our partner, or scenes of cars driving through deserts or up mountain-sides. What if we could program our television to substitute a virtual reality show that gets us moving through that grassy field, or hiking up a mountain for five minutes?

Technology has made us sit too much. Now is the time for technology to get us to move.

“Trends in Sedentary Behavior Among the US Population 2001-2016,” Yang L, Cao, C, Kantor E, et al, JAMA 2019; 321: 1587-1597

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