Tag Archives: toxic environment

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 attack of our toxic food environment. And how to fight back!

The term “toxic environment” was popularized by Kelly Brownell, an obesity and weight loss researcher, years ago to refer to conditions that promote the consumption of high-calorie, unhealthy food and encourage being physically inactive. This combination is thought to be a major factor that contributes to obesity and other chronic diseases, so understanding both aspects deserves our attention. Hy Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week  focuses on our toxic food environment. (Next week I will explore our toxic activity environment)

Fastfood One characteristic of the toxic environment is that food is available almost everywhere. Gas stations have evolved into convenience stares that happen to sell gas, tempting you as you enter to pay. Displays of candy, soda, and other snacks are present at nearly every checkout lane in nearly every store, even stores that have nothing to do with food. You can find vending machines that sell candy and soda most places you go, even hospitals and schools. Many workplaces have a common area where you can typically find a candy dish or a break room with vending machines. Even going to a meeting at work may mean sitting around a table with a plate of donuts in the center. Sure, you don’t have to buy a soda when you pay for gas or take a donut from the plate, but resisting can be difficult. The more you are around food, the more likely you are to eat it, even if you aren’t hungry. Whether your goal is to eat less food or to eat healthier food, the world we live in makes it difficult. It’s not just willpower, either. We are all susceptible to marketing, whether done by a store, restaurant, or a friend with a plate of freshly baked brownies. The power of marketing, combined with the fact that most of us don’t really understand food or nutrition, is difficult to overcome. It gets worse. It turns out that much of the food we are continually exposed to is of poor nutritional quality. Convenience foods such as candy, snacks, and drinks tend to be high in calories, mostly from added sugar and/or fat, and low in nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Many restaurant meals, both fast food and casual dining, are similar in this way. Even prepackaged meals that you eat at home tend to be high in calories and low in healthy nutrients. So, not only are we almost always around food, much of that food is unhealthy. It also turns out that these unhealthy, calorie-dense foods come in portions that contain a shocking number of calories that can contribute to weight gain. Think about soda, for example. It used to be that you could buy a soda in a 12 oz. can or a 16 oz. bottle. Now 20 oz. bottles are common and even larger sizes are almost always an option. The same is true for candy and snacks, like chips. As portions increase, so do the calories we consume. To be fair, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with having so many foods and drinks available to us. We don’t need to eat these foods, right? But, all too often, we do. And when the excess calories from all of this food are combined with a low level of physical activity, a “perfect storm” is created that almost always leads to weight gain. Changing our food environment is difficult, maybe even impossible. But we can change the way we interact with our environment. This includes being more mindful of what, when, and why we are eating. Being aware of internal signals like hunger and external forces like advertising and peer pressure can help us make smarter decisions within our toxic food environment.