How much does sitting cost mankind’s health? According to several new papers in the Lancet, at least $67 billion a year. About $54 billion of that represents direct medical costs. And that does not include the costs of early death.
Can one million people really be wrong?
The results, pooling 16 studies of those million people through an eight year period, appear among four Lancet papers reviewing the results of physical inactivity prior to the Olympics. A previous set appeared in 2012. In some ways, the results look worse four years on – the more hours you sit, the quicker you leave this earth.
That is even true for televisionwatching , of whose engagement a subgroup of a half million was followed. Those who sat for more than 3 hours a day before the tube experienced progressively higher rates of death. The numbers for sitting in front of the TV were even a little worse than for sitting, say, at work. The authors were not sure why. They thought it might be that watching more TV was part of a more unhealthy lifestyle – or perhaps TV viewers like to snack.
But there is a silver lining in the Lancet papers. Even people who sit at their jobs eight hours a day can reverse the increased death rate through vigorous activity. Move quickly for more than an hour a day and the death rates go as low as if you were not sitting at all. That highly positive result is new.
Now we just need to get people to move.
The Problem of Inactivity
So how does inactivity increase medical costs? One answer is simple – inactivity increases most of chronic diseases that afflict mankind. Think stroke, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, dementia. Each are prevented by physical activity. Move more, live longer. Move more, feel better. Move more, think better.
So what are the mechanisms for physical inactivity’s baleful effects?
As usual when confronting the information system that is the human body, the most important variables may not yet be known. It does appear that people clot more when we sit – we know what happens in airplanes. A recent Japanese study of TV watching and pulmonary emboli – lung clots – found they went up 70% when watching for two and a half to five hours, and 250% when watching for more than five hours a day.
Another unhealthy factor engaged by sitting is that glucose metabolism seems to go haywire. Sitting and obesity are also highly correlated. My personal guess is that immune function is also unhappily changed by staying sedentary.
So why aren’t people moving more?
Because there are great incentives in life and work not to move. And governments have done little to encourage physical activity for much of the world’s population.
Solutions to Inactivity
The Lancer researchers make clear that if you want to save on health care costs, one of the cheapest, most cost-effective ways to do that is to get people to move. To walk, stroll, saunter, march, bike, hike, and swim can save millions of lives and many billions of dollars. In a world where people sit tethered to their monitors at lunch, and teenagers linger at their cellphones in the mall in preference to sports, you have to come up with lots of different ways to get people back to the nature human nature. For one of the most natural, and pleasurable, of human acts is to walk and run. Here’s a rundown of public and private actions that work:
- Mass transit. When it’s cheaper, easier, and more convenient to use mass transit than a car, people move a whole lot more. But you may not want to make the stops too close together if you want to encourage people to walk a lot.
- Bike lanes and public bicycles. Particularly in congested cities, if people can get around more quickly by bike than car, they often take the option. However, car owners don’t generally like bike lanes, and traffic rules must be enforced for them to work.
- Higher gasoline taxes. Car owners really dislike this option, though if they saw how many lives were saved from reduced pollutants they might change their tune. People are particularly unaware about how atmospheric pollutants provoke respiratory illnesses, and independently decrease work productivity. Just because the stuff’s invisible doesn’t mean it can’t hurt you, your work and business.
- Standing desks and office meetings. Standing takes a good deal more energy than sitting, and frequently standing workers often feel more alert.
- Taking breaks. Getting up every thirty minutes for a minute may improve mortality rates quite a bit. And it’s better for morale for people at work to get up and visit others.
- A new approach to television. There is no inherent reason that you have to sit while watching TV. You can do stepping – even using an old textbook or a pile of diet books as the step. Most athletic machines are TV friendly.
- Emphasize interval training. There’s something useful about going flat out in physical exercise, even if its for ten or twenty seconds at a time. Most people don’t think of lavatory breaks as opportunities for high intensity exercise, but stairs are often convenient places to briefly get out of breath.
Humans are walking machines. Modern life leaves us sitting too much. If we spent perhaps one sixteenth of our waking hours moving in some kind of way, we may mitigate much of the ill effects of our sedentary work and social lives.