During this time of year, many of us struggle with controlling our weight because we’re not able to be as active due to winter weather. Our well intentioned New Year’s resolutions about dieting, renewing our gym membership and eating better have faded in our memory, and there are the standard jokes about becoming a “coach potato.” What are often not discussed are the significant health problems that can develop from living a sedentary lifestyle—at work and at home.
The term couch potato was coined in the 1970s to describe a developing lifestyle for many Americans. The definition of a sedentary lifestyle is a type of existence with no or irregular physical activity. Sedentary activities include sitting, reading, watching television, playing video games and computer use for much of the day with little or no vigorous physical exercise. Physical inactivity has been described by many researchers as the largest public health problem of the 21st century.
There are many social and cultural changes that lead to inactivity in our daily lives. Our jobs are now more service-oriented, with many fewer manufacturing jobs that require physical exertion. Most of us spend a large part of the day sitting in front of a computer. Our young people spend many more hours using one of the many forms of electronic communication available to them, rather than playing sports. Because of decreased budgets, physical education has been dropped from many schools.
What are some health conditions associated with a sedentary lifestyle?
Cancer: There is increased risk for certain types of cancer, including breast cancer and colon cancer. Being physically active can decrease your risk of dying from cancer by about 40 percent.
Diabetes: There is an increased likelihood of developing insulin resistance, commonly known as type 2 diabetes. One study found that every two hours spent watching TV increases a person’s risk for type 2 diabetes by 14 percent. This will vary with genetics and family history.
Heart attack: People who live a sedentary lifestyle have the highest rate of heart attack. Being physically active for just a half hour a day can cut the risk for heart attack in half.
Stroke: Inactivity has been associated increasing your risk of stroke. Men and women who are physically active can cut their risk of stroke by up to 50 percent.
Blood clots: Sitting for long periods of time makes it more difficult for your blood to flow efficiently. This increases the risk of blood clots, particularly pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in the lungs). Women who take oral contraceptives should be especially mindful of this, since those prescriptions increase the risk of blood clots.
Decreased immunity: Some research suggests that a sedentary lifestyle leads to a less efficient immune system, making it easier to pick up colds, the flu and various illnesses and diseases.
The common problem of depression is also negatively influenced by inactivity.
Physical factors associated with lack of exercise
Medical literature has described for many years the physical and metabolic effects of inactivity. Most of us are aware that with no exercise we are prone to obesity, changes in metabolism, loss of muscle mass and general weakness, along with decreased bone mass. All of these can lead to difficulty in completing normal daily activities like grocery shopping and simple chores around your house. It also leads to increased risk of being injured, joint and back stiffness, and loss of balance, leading to falls.
What is considered adequate physical activity?
Moderate-intensity aerobic activity means you’re working hard enough to raise your heart rate and break a sweat. This can include walking fast, doing water aerobics, riding a bike on level ground or with few hills, playing doubles tennis, or pushing a lawn mower. Vigorous-intensity aerobic activity means you’re breathing hard and fast, and your heart rate goes up quite a bit. Higher intensity activities includes jogging or running, swimming laps, riding a bike fast or on hills, playing singles tennis, or playing basketball.
In addition to setting time aside for exercise, you can also increase your daily exertion at work or home by attempting to walk more than sit. Use the stairs, rather than the elevator to go between floors. Park your car away from the office building or store so that you will have to walk a longer distance. Weather permitting, walk with your family after dinner for one mile. You can increase the distance and the pace gradually. Be creative and protect your health.