Spending every workday in a chair is bad for you? Who knew?

Health | by Gregory Beatty

I earn my living as a writer. I still consider myself active, in that I cycle and walk a lot, and take the stairs when I can. But 50-plus hour work weeks add up. So overall, I have a pretty sedentary life.

But I’m not exactly in the minority there, am I?

“You don’t even have to go to the grocery store and walk around anymore, you can just place an order on your phone and get it delivered,” says University of Regina kinesiologist Katya Herman. “It almost seems on a daily basis we’re engineering activity out of our lives and figuring out ways we can stay sitting and not move.”

That’s great for comfort, but for most of our evolutionary history we’ve had to strive mightily to secure food, shelter, transport and other essentials. That’s what we’re genetically programmed to do.

Our current lifestyle is radically different.

“It’s no longer a requirement of day-to-day life that we be physically active,” says Herman. “Our bodies and physiology aren’t meant to be as sedentary as we’ve become. As a species, we’re meant to be more active.”

For adults, Canada’s fitness guide recommends 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous activity. For children, it’s 60 minutes a day.

Statistics show about 80 per cent of adults and 90 per cent of children don’t meet the standard.

Give yourself a pat on the back if you do. But that still doesn’t mean you’re not sedentary.

“You can be classed as an active adult if you get your 150 minutes a week,” says Herman. “But in addition to moderate to vigorous activity, you need light physical activity so you’re not sitting on your butt the rest of the day. Because that has negative effects that aren’t counteracted by your earlier activity.”

Human health is complicated. The diseases we’re susceptible to typically have multiple risk factors. Cardiovascular disease — such as heart attack and stroke — has dropped dramatically in recent years.

That sounds like good news. And it is. But it’s mostly due to plunging smoking rates.

What is definitely bad news, though, is the toll our increasingly sedentary life is exacting in such areas as heart disease, blood pressure, cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, dementia and more.

“Over the last three decades, obesity levels have increased dramatically — not just in adults, but in a very concerning way in children and youth,” says Herman. “That’s something that will carry into adulthood, and will pose a risk for disease outcomes.”

Some of this is on us, of course. We need to motivate ourselves to get active again. First, by meeting the guidelines for moderate to vigorous exercise. Then by thinking up ways to engineer activity back into our lives.

Herman has a sit-stand desk in her office so she can work while standing. She also keeps a water bottle handy to “encourage” bathroom breaks, and to get exercise (and save on bags) she never uses the garbage can in her office. Instead, she walks down the hall to deposit her trash.

But we also need to do a better job as a society to encourage physical activity. Designing walkable neighbourhoods is a perfect example.

“Are they built with sidewalks, walking paths and parks for children that encourage people to be active?” asks Herman. “Or are they built without those features, and others that make children and adults feel safe outside?

“Are they built without daily conveniences, so people have to get into their cars and drive everywhere they go? Or can you walk down the street to the store?”

Think about architecture too.

“How many times do you walk into a building and you only have to go to the second or third floor,” says Herman. “The elevator’s in front of you, and you’re not sure where the stairs are. You have to go look for them around the corner.”

Some of the changes we need to make are just smart design. Others will cost money. But Health is a black hole of government spending in Canada (Saskatchewan’s budget alone has skyrocketed from $3.75 billion in 2008-09 to $5.6 billion in 2017-18). So we’re already paying.

“Improving the physical activity and fitness of the population, there’s no question whatsoever that long-term it produces a cost-saving, even if money needs to be spent at a municipal, provincial or federal level to help achieve that,” says Herman.

“Right now, the negative health outcomes from lack of activity are costing billions.” ❧

Herman is speaking on sedentary humans at the Science Centre May 26 at 1:30 p.m. Learn more about her research here.


Science In Action

To better gauge our activity levels, Katya Herman and a team of University of Regina researchers are conducting a study.

“SeasonActiv has been going for a year, and we’ll be recruiting at least until the end of 2017,” she says. “We take 30 new participants per season. They come in four times, once a season, for an assessment. There’s nothing required of them other than just living their daily lives.”

The study’s purpose is two-fold: to measure seasonal variations in activity, and the impacts on health of different patterns of activity.

“The assessment measures things such as blood cholesterol and glucose, blood pressure, body composition, they complete a questionnaire, then we send them out with an activity monitor for a week,” says Herman.

“We’re looking for variations in physical activity over the seasons. If people are consistently active all year, whether that be highly active or less active, versus others who might be more active in the summer and less active in the winter, does that make a difference to health outcomes?

“We also look at the idea of the weekend warrior who gets three hours of activity in some sport on Saturday versus others who maybe do a half hour every day. Is there a difference between them if their total activity is the same?” /Gregory Beatty