The sedentary life

Next to my computer at home is a kitchen timer. If I plan to spend part of my weekend at the computer, I set the timer for 30 minutes. When it goes “ding!” I know it’s time to turn off the computer and go do something else.

This was one of my New Year’s resolutions this year – to limit how long I sit at the computer and, by extension, to be more physically active.

It’s pretty amazing how much time we spend sitting on our duffs. Television and video games seem to get most of the blame but I think there’s also something else going on: the amount of time, by necessity, the average adult spends in front of a computer screen.

I mean, think about it. We pay our bills online. We do our taxes online. We bank and shop online. We follow the news online. If you’re like me, e-mail and Facebook are probably the main ways you stay in touch with family and friends. (Then there’s my little addiction to Farmville… but I don’t wanna talk about that right now.) One way or another, it’s not hard to rack up a lot of time, on a daily or weekly basis, being sedentary while we deal with the mundane routine of life.

I’m not suggesting we banish computers from our lives. The issue is one of moderation. What’s worth noting here is the importance of moving around – not necessarily running marathons but just being reasonably active throughout the day.

It’s pretty hard to ignore the evidence that has piled up over the years consistently demonstrating that a non-sedentary lifestyle is linked to better overall health and better quality of life. The most recent additions to this body of knowledge appeared a few months ago in the Archives of Internal Medicine in the form of several published studies, most of them looking at the effects of exercise on aging. In an accompanying commentary, the editors note that “the promotion of physical activity may be the most effective prescription that physicians can dispense for the purposes of promoting successful aging.”

Among some of the benefits: improved cardiovascular health, increased endurance, stronger bones, better sleep, reduced stress and better ability to manage weight.

In the national public-health clamor over obesity, it often seems we’ve become so hung up on the numbers on the scale that we’ve lost the ability to put them into context. Yes, we need to do something about obesity. But physical activity is equally a predictor – maybe even more so – of lifelong health. It’s possible, after all, to weigh the right amount yet not be very physically active. It’s just as possible to be overweight in spite of relatively consistent exercise. If I had to pick which of these two examples denoted better overall health, I’d go with the person who maybe weighs a little too much but is physically active.

Getting a move on is not easy. We live in a fast-food environment that makes it difficult to eat as well as we could, and we live in a technological world that makes it difficult for us to be as active as we should. I’m not going to give up my computer any time soon, and in fact I would be at an enormous social disadvantage without it. But we need to be mindful and seek some balance. Sometimes all it takes is setting a timer and then going outdoors on a sunny April weekend and weeding the garden instead.

Image: I Can Has

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