Tag Archives: sedentary

Be active, even when you’re not.

You probably know that exercise is good for your physical health. A lower risk of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers are among a long list of positive health effects of regular physical activity. But the rewards of exercise go beyond strengthening muscles and bones, burning fat, and improving heart health. Lesser known benefits include improved mental health, cognitive function, and greater feelings of wellbeing. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


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Driving yourself to the doctor.

Have you ever thought about how much time you spend in your car? On average, Americans face a 50-minute round-trip drive each day just for their jobs, and nearly thee-quarters of commuters drive alone. In suburban and metropolitan areas the commute can be much longer. Even in Aiken the average commute time is about 23 minutes. When you include driving to work, taking the kids to school, and doing errands, sitting in a car can easily account for an hour or more each day.

You can find the average commute time in your area using this really cool interactive map from WNYC.

You are probably very aware of the time you spend in the car. What you may not know is that sitting in your car can also have negative effects on your health and happiness. This is the conclusion of several studies that examined the relationship between commuting time and indicators of health. One of these studies suggests that vehicle miles traveled is a strong predictor of obesity. In another study, commuting a greater distance was associated with lower levels of physical activity and fitness as well as a higher waist circumference and blood pressure.

This makes sense because spending more time sitting in your car means you have less time to dedicate to being physically active, something we know is good for your health. Add to that the fact that driving is sedentary. There is accumulating evidence that spending more time sitting in the car, at work, or at home is a predictor of poor health, regardless of how active you are the rest of the day.

It gets worse. Many people eat in their cars during long commutes. Much of the time these “meals” consist of fast food and other prepackaged foods—not many people eat salads while they drive! Since these foods are typically of questionable nutritional quality and high in calories, this alone can contribute to obesity and poor health. The combination of inactivity and eating behind the wheel can easily shift the balance toward weight gain. Plus, eating while you drive is dangerous!

Beyond the direct impact on health through eating and activity behaviors, commuting alone in a car is a form of social isolation. Research suggests that this can lead to depression, itself an important factor leading to poor health.

The problems with long commute times are well established and easy to appreciate. Unfortunately, the solutions are not. Most people can’t move in order to have a shorter commute and relying on public transportation isn’t practical or even possible for many people, especially in our area. Replacing driving a car with active modes of transportation simply isn’t practical.

Aside from the time requirement—imagine how long a 25 minute drive would take on a bike or on foot!—our environment doesn’t adequately support active travel. Being able to walk or bike requires access to safe bike lanes and sidewalks that connect people’s homes to work, school, and other destinations. Even public transportation increases activity over driving and enhances social connections. Sadly, this infrastructure doesn’t exist in most communities, which were built to support cars, not people.

But we can take steps to undo some of the damage that so much driving can cause. Making activity at other times of the day a priority is a good start. This could include exercise at the gym, going for a walk, or even yard work or housework. When possible, replace car trips with walking or biking. Planning these activities with others can strengthen social connections as well as improve health and fitness. Finally, act as an advocate for changes in the community that will make active transportation more realistic.

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.


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.

The physical activity report card is in. We pretty much failed.

The spring semester just ended at the university where I teach. Which means my colleagues and I have been busy evaluating our student’s progress and submitting grades.

About this time, another report card came in from the National Physical Activity Plan evaluating physical activity in U.S. children. The results aren’t good. In fact, we pretty much failed! This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


It’s probably no surprise that the majority of Americans are not active enough. Only about half of adults meet even the minimum recommendation for physical activity of 30 minutes per day, five days per week. Compounding this problem is the fact that many people spend much of their time at work and home being sedentary—some spend over 12 hours per day sitting!

Low levels of physical activity is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, some cancers, and, of course, obesity in adults. Becoming more active is probably the most important change a sedentary person can make to improve their health. The impact is similar to a smoker who quits.

What may be surprising is that this is a problem for children, too. Less than half of children ages 6–11 are active for 60 minutes per day. Among teenagers, it is less than 10%! The health effects of too little activity in kids is similar to that of adults.

The combination of inactivity and obesity can lead to “adult” diseases such as type 2 diabetes in young people. For this reason, some experts predict that this generation of children may be the first ever to die at a younger age than their parents.

Current recommendations call for children under the age of 18 to attain at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity at least five days per week. In younger kids this can be achieved through active play. In teens it is more likely to include organized sports and games.

The National Physical Activity Plan is a set of recommendations, programs, and initiatives designed to promote an active lifestyle at work, school, and home for all Americans. It was established by an alliance of health professionals and researchers.

This group recently released a report card on physical activity for children and youth that graded the success of efforts to promote activity in several areas. The results show that we are failing to meet even minimum goals and recommendations. Here is a summary of that report card:

Overall physical activity: D-Only 42% of 6–11 year old children and just 8% of kids ages 12–15 meet the 60 minutes per day activity goal.

Sedentary behaviors: D. About half of all children spend more than the recommended upper limit of two hours of screen time, which includes TV, computer, and video games, per day.

Active transportation: F. Just over 10% of children walk or bike to school regularly.

Physical education in school: C-Only about half of children attend at least one PE class per week.

Based on these grades, American children are not getting enough physical activity. But it isn’t fair to say that our children are earning these grades—it’s the adults who are failing! Most children are at the mercy of parents, teachers, and other adults who decide how they will spend their time at school and at home.

The report card shows that we are either not allowing our kids to be active enough or limiting opportunities for them to move and play. This isn’t necessarily a conscious effort, but is likely a consequence of the physical activity habits of adults that our children adopt.

Given the importance of regular activity for growth, development, health, and even academic success, getting our kids to be more active should be among our highest priorities. This requires both individual action and organized community efforts to make physical activity and exercise a part of every child’s day.

And while we are at it, we (the adults) should make this same effort. Perhaps the failing grades on the recent report card will motivate us.


Replacing sedentary time with physical activity–at the bar!

I’m a big fan of finding ways to turn sedentary time into opportunities to be active. At home, this includes spending less time sitting watching television and more time up and moving. Even getting off the couch during commercials can make a difference. At work, using a standing desk, holding walking meetings, and taking frequent activity breaks are good ways to limit sitting time.

But what about when you meet your friends at the bar for a drink. Even though alcohol consumption (in moderation, of course) can have health benefits, the fact that you are sitting doesn’t do you any favors.

Problem solved! I was in Indianapolis last week for the American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting when I happened to see this:


It’s called the HandleBar Pedal Pub and it is a mobile bar. Like most bars, there is a bartender who serves drinks. But unlike most bars, the patrons pedal while they drink. There is also a driver, presumably a designated driver, who makes sure they don’t hit anything.  You can learn more at http://www.handlebarindy.com/

Now you can combine happy hour with exercise time!