With the holiday shopping season in full force and among the biggest in recent years, retailers are discounting electronics and all things that purport to offer us more leisure time and make our lives easier and more efficient — flat screen TVs, smartphones, computers and tablets.
A common thread among these gifts is that the emphasis on ease has taken us further from earlier generations that relied on movement for food, work and even fun. Instead, they have brought us to a place where 82 million Americans are not physically active and 90 million (40 percent) are obese.
At the American Heart Association’s annual Scientific Sessions meeting in Chicago in November, the long-awaited 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans were released. Authors of the statement described the deplorable state of activity in our country and the negative health implications of physical inactivity.
I have studied the influence of physical inactivity and sedentary behavior for nearly 20 years. Our team of researchers at Northwestern University has found that adults and children who are inactive and in poor fitness are more likely to become obese, develop diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol. Our research falls within an even larger body of work showing that people who are physically inactive are more likely to develop cardiovascular diseases and certain cancers.
Global estimates implicate physical inactivity in 9 percent of premature mortality. Ironically, given the emphasis on reducing movement to be more productive, adults and children who are more physically active report better concentration, improved mood and better cognitive function with aging. Despite the clear benefits of physical activity across ages and organ systems, we are doing less of it as a country.
To promote optimal health, experts recommend that adults engage in 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week, with two days a week focused on muscle strengthening activity. Children ages 6 to 19 are recommended to get 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous activity.
One of the biggest departures from earlier recommendations is that the recommended physical activity doesn’t have to come within sustained “bouts” of activity of 10 minutes or more. Instead, experts want us to do what we can, when we can, to achieve the targeted physical activity levels. While this recommendation is based on science, it is not likely to cause large-scale shifts in activity since research on barriers to physical activity suggests the requirement for sustained activity is not the most salient.
The most significant barrier to becoming more active depends on whom you ask, but for many, it is opportunity and time. The growing emphasis on academics during school versus free play or physical education for children limits options to team sports or structured classes outside of school hours. Many of these extra-curricular activities are costly, time-consuming and exclude those who do not enjoy competition or performance. Others cite the financial barriers posed by the cost of joining gyms or concerns about safety while engaging in outdoor activity.
These barriers are real and require multifactorial solutions. However, just as we have attacked another behavior — smoking — with multiple tools from the policy and behavioral change toolkit and achieved very real population declines in the behavior, we can do the same to reduce physical inactivity.
Behavioral change starts with acknowledging the problem and a willingness to change the behavior. As we make lists of gifts for ourselves, our friends and family this holiday season, we should prioritize purchases that promote activity. Pricey home gym equipment isn’t required, nor are less-pricey and ever-popular wrist-worn mobile fitness trackers. Instead, gifts to promote physical activity could be tennis shoes or comfortable clothes for walking — or simply a commitment to walk for 30 minutes with a friend each week.
As the shopping season continues to ramp up, we should lace-up for the race of our lives.
Mercedes Carnethon is the Mary Harris Thompson Professor of Preventive Medicine and chief of epidemiology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.
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