“SITTING IS THE NEW SMOKING” — What We Can Do About Killer Couches, Sedentary Schools, and the Pandemic of Inactivity

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Sitting is the new smoking. That’s a useful new buzz-phrase for what some health experts are calling the “pandemic of inactivity.”

In January, the Harvard Business Review published “Sitting is the Smoking of Our Generation,” an article by Nilofer Merchant. “The common denominator in the modern workday is our, um, tush,” wrote Merchant, a corporate director at a NASDAQ-traded firm and a former founder and CEO of Rubicon. “As we work, we sit more than we do anything else.” Add in the time we sit at home, and we’re averaging 9.3 hours of sit time every day.

And children? Think of schools. Some do a good job getting kids moving. But at other schools, too many students spend most of their time sitting. At their desks, in front of computers, taking tests, sitting in schools where recess and gym class have been restricted or eliminated. Even in preschools, most children sit in the classroom for most of the day — and even when they go outside, more than half of their activities remain sedentary. Then they’re driven home (sitting) to sit some more. It’s killing them. It’s killing us.

Last year, an Australian study found that for each additional hour of television a person sat and watched per day, the risk of dying rose by 11 percent, according to The New York Times.

Diet and genetics contribute to obesity and overweight, but so does simple inactivity — and prolonged sitting may be a killer even if we don’t put on the pounds. In July, The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, launched a series of alarming reports, confirming that physical inactivity is a leading risk factor for deaths due to non-communicable diseases. “Researchers conclude that inactivity is causing 5.3 million deaths per year,” according to the journal’s summary. “Further, this is very similar to the number of deaths attributed [by the World Health Organization] to tobacco smoking, and one of the papers in this series calculated the population attributable risk to be very similar for tobacco and inactivity.”

When I visited Houston last week, a city known for its advanced medical facilities, the topic of inactivity – and its relationship to child obesity – was a focus of intense discussion. That was due, partly, to a Texas-sized obesity rate in the state, and it was also due to the fact that one of the lead researchers on inactivity is Harold “Bill” Kohl, professor of epidemiology and kinesiology with the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the University of Texas School of Public Health.

“Although regular physical activity is critical for weight control, it is equally or more important for lowering risk of many different chronic diseases such as heart disease, some cancers, osteoporosis and diabetes,” according to Kohl, who wrote the final paper in The Lancet series. Add to this list of maladies the harm to psychological health and cognitive skills, which in turn can exacerbate health problems and contribute to weight gain.

What to do? The answer isn’t necessarily at the gym, but in how we move throughout the day. In the workplace, standing desks are “a step forward,” according to Merchant. “But even that, while it gets you off your duff, won’t help you get real exercise. So four years ago, I made a simple change when I switched one meeting from a coffee meeting to a walking-meeting. This changed my life. I’ve learned that if you want to get out of the box thinking, you need to literally get out of the box.”

Merchant now walks 20 to 30 miles every week, and has held hundreds of walking meetings.

Wired magazine reports that Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg does walk-and-talk meetings, too; so did Steve Jobs. Nonetheless, tech companies, individually or through their philanthropies, do little to encourage physical activity or nature experiences in schools. Instead, they push for the increasingly computer-dependent classroom.

In fairness, the business culture’s bottom-line influence on education did some good during the past two decades; it helped raise a few test scores and increased the amount of technology in the classroom. But in other ways, that influence was disastrous; it helped lead to more desk time, more inactivity (which just might be related to hyperactivity), more child obesity and more Type II diabetes among children.

Meanwhile, a growing body of evidence indicates that children need far more activity, including unstructured play, to improve health, cognition and emotional well-being. Nature-based exercise appears to be especially effective. As a result, some pediatricians and mental health professionals are now prescribing “green exercise” in parks and other natural settings. And at least some schools and determined natural teachers are insisting that their students do a portion of their learning outdoors, in nature — adding priceless balance to their lives.

If technology is going to create a better future, its leaders should devote at least a modicum of energy to getting kids moving again (sorry, Wii Golf just won’t do), preferably outside in nature. Hard to imagine? Take a cue from Nilofer Merchant: “You’ll be surprised at how fresh air drives fresh thinking.”

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More reading:

“Sitting is the Smoking of Our Generation,” Harvard Business Review

“Effects of Physical Inactivity …” The Lancet

“Is Sitting a Lethal Activity?” The New York Times

“In Silicon Valley, Sitting is the New Smoking,” Wired

Preschoolers More Sedentary Than Thought

Sitting May Be The New Smoking According to New Research, PRWEB, American Cancer Institute

*Note: The meme “Sitting is the new smoking” may have been launched in a Nov. 25, 2011 publicity release from the American Institute of Cancer Research. But now it’s entering the language, thanks largely to Nilofer Merchant.

Photo: Shutterstock/Kirill P

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