Why are we so sedentary?

Daily physical activity is a key factor in maintaining a healthy weight and reducing risk of chronic diseases such as coronary artery disease, hypertension and diabetes. Yet, research indicates that over 16 percent of Minnesotans are not engaging in any physical activity, and over half are not exercising enough to avoid gaining weight and to ward off chronic conditions. Minnesotans are more likely to be overweight than ever before, and chronic, preventable health conditions in children are increasing at alarming rates.

Looking back a generation or two, obesity was not a common condition among Americans, nor was a sedentary lifestyle. Leisure time was scant, and domestic responsibilities, as well as more workforce jobs, involved hard physical labor. Physical activity was a natural part of daily living.

However, our parents and grandparents, wanting the “good life” for their offspring, strived to build a society in which less physical labor was necessary, and more leisure time was available for personal pursuits.

Unfortunately, what our parents and grandparents did not realize is that their success in creating a “good life” for us may have given us too much of a good thing. Those appliances, vehicles, devices and computers which save us so much time and labor also keep us from having to expend any physical exertion as we move through the tasks of our day. We have, on average, much more leisure time than in the past, but we too often choose sedentary activities such as television, computer time and riding in vehicles. Unless we make conscious decisions to put physical activity back into our lifestyle, the “good life” may not be very good after all.

Even the design of our physical environment undermines our ability to remain active on a daily basis. Urban sprawl has resulted in the development of housing subdivisions located substantial distances from local business centers, green spaces, schools or places of interest, with the assumption that the car will be the main mode of transportation to reach those places. With cars as the primary mode of transportation, the development of safe and easy bicycle and pedestrian routes has not been prioritized.

Lest we use these social and environmental influences as an excuse to remain sedentary, it is important to note that in recent years there are many more reasons to start being more active than to remain on the couch. First, the benefits of physical activity are widely known, and the options for physical activity are widely available. On the community design and environmental front, the federal government is funding more alternative transportation projects, including initiatives that promote safe walks to school and pedestrian and bicycle-friendly environments. Communities are embracing new design concepts, including mixed land-use zoning that creates neighborhoods where housing, business centers, places of interest and green spaces are all in close proximity. This allows for residents to walk or bike to many destinations (imagine Sesame Street in your town!). Schools are initiating “walking school busses” where parents and community members organize and band together to accompany school children along their walk or bike to school.

Most people say they feel better both physically and mentally when they engage in regular physical activity. Most of us need more exercise than we are getting right now. As you begin (or continue) on your personal plan to maintain regular physical activity, consider the many ways that you can put more activity into your daily living routines. Research shows in the United States, nearly 25 percent of all trips are less than one mile, but more than 75 percent of these short trips are made by automobile. It is reasonable to expect that many trips could be made on foot or bicycle. Watching 30 fewer minutes of television each day could free up 14 hours a month for engaging in an exercise program of your choice. Even small routine changes, such as hanging wet laundry on a clothes line rather than using your dryer, taking the stairs rather than the elevator, or parking at the far end of the parking lot rather than right next to the door, can translate into important health improvements.

— Trina Barno is a health and nutrition educator with the University of Minnesota Extension Service Regional Center in Mora.

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