Our toxic activity environment, and what you can do about it.

Last week I introduced the idea that we live in a “toxic environment,” which provides easy access to high-calorie, unhealthy, inexpensive food and promotes physical inactivity. The focus was on the toxic food environment, so now it is time to explore our toxic activity environment and how you can modify it to increase your activity, which can help you lose weight.

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The environment affects our physical activity on several levels. The built environment refers to the layout of our communities, including roads, sidewalks, availability of public transportation, where homes and businesses are located, and even the design of buildings. If you live in a mixed-use area in which there are lots of well-maintained sidewalks that connect your home to schools, parks, churches, restaurants, shops, and businesses, the built environment is likely to support more activity. In larger cities, an effective public transportation network can increase your activity.

However, many people live in areas where there aren’t sidewalks or, if there are, the distances between destinations are too far to make walking convenient. Or they live in a neighborhood that is separated by distance or geography (a busy road, perhaps) from other places they go. Even when sidewalks are present, using them may be challenging due to poor maintenance, automobile traffic, or dangerous road crossings. Even when signals for pedestrians exist, there may not be enough time to safely cross the street, a serious limitation for those with limited mobility. In many cases, the built environment can actually discourage—even prevent—physical activity.

The built environment includes indoor spaces, too. If the building you work in has clean, safe, and accessible stairs, you will be more likely to use the stairs rather than the elevator. Even the design of offices and workspaces can influence activity. If your office has a desk and a chair, it is almost guaranteed you will sit much of the day. Even the small increase in activity that comes from using a standing desk or an alternative to a traditional chair, like sitting on a stability ball, can add up during the day. Some people even have treadmill desks, so they can walk while they work!

At work and at home, technology and labor-saving devices make it easy to be inactive. At work you can communicate with coworkers by phone or email instead of walking to their office to talk. Entire groups of people can have meetings via video in which each person is seated at their own desk, even though everyone works in the same building. At home you can change the TV channel, connect with friends and family, even order dinner from the comfort of your couch. Riding lawn mowers and leaf blowers reduce the physical effort needed to do yard work and robotic vacuums allow you to sit and watch your floors get cleaned.

The good news is that you can change the way in which you interact with the toxic activity environment to increase your level of activity. You may need to drive to a store or restaurant if it is too far to walk, but you can park farther away to get a few extra steps. You can get up from your desk to talk to a coworker rather than calling or sending an email. At home you can get up off the couch during commercials or take short “screen time” breaks to move. And it is perfectly alright to leave the leaf blower in the garage and use a rake to clean up the yard.

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