Stop the "active couch potato" effect by stepping out of the gym and into an active lifestyle.

September 14, 2009


By Shaun Chavis
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Sitting too much, even if you're otherwise active, can increase your risk for obesity and diabetes, researchers say. Even if you get in your recommended 30-minute workouts most days of the week, sitting for long periods of time appears to change your physiology, tipping your metabolic health out of your favor. It's what researchers dub the "active couch potato" effect. And their findings aren't just about adding in another hour of aerobics or weight lifting; you simply need to move. Getting up. Stretching. Walking. Cycling. Climbing the stairs. Gardening. Playing a casual game of catch, maybe.

But what if you're practically chained to your cubicle all day, your nose pressed against the computer screen? What if your neighborhood isn't a place where you'd want your kids to play kickball in the street—or play outside at all? What if it's not so easy to walk to the grocery store, to school, or to work?

Enter the Move Movement. American Idle: A Journey Through Our Sedentary Culture, out this month, is both a personal story and an investigative account. Author Mary Collins was very active until an accident made her think about physical activity in a new way. Her personal challenges turned into a years-long look at how our environment and society impacts how Americans move. (Or don't move.) I asked Ms. Collins more about what she's learned about movement, and how we can all make our lives healthier and take more steps in fighting obesity.

Q: This book started out with a personal crisis for you. What happened, and how did that spark this book?

A: In 1999 I had a devastating bicycle accident. Medics had to helicopter me to a trauma center. As I worked to regain the full use of my body again—which involved some back surgery—I became painfully aware of America’s chair-dominated culture. I couldn’t sit for more than an hour and that really underscored for me how much the average person is expected to sit every day at work. As a former college athlete, my lack of activity was just mind-blowing.

I wrote an essay about the culture of sitting and the history of the chair for The Washington Post ("Don't Have a Seat"), which won the Best Essay of the Year Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors in 2003. I decided I wanted to explore even further what it meant that most Americans had limited movement—albeit what I felt was “by choice” rather than because of an accident—but the social, cultural, physical, and even moral consequences were the same.

Of course, I discovered in my three years of traveling the country that the lack of movement for most Americans is hardly by choice—their environments and schedules make it nearly impossible to integrate healthy movement patterns into their day.

Q: America has nearly 30,000 health clubs, and more than 41 million Americans are members. Why is moving our bodies more a problem?

A: Organized sports and exercise classes are the exact opposite of what Americans really need, which is far greater options for integrating movement into many levels of their day. Physical activity has become something we choose to do and something we “go to,” but that’s an artificial construct when you look at our long history as a species. My book explores the damaging consequences of that mind-set. Hey, even the director of the Olympic Center thinks the trend toward organized sports and exercise classes is a travesty of the first order and that spontaneous free play for kids and adults is far more effective and healthy. As he said, we’ve lost physical grace.

Next page: The risks of being sedentary

Q: The obesity crisis we now face is only the beginning of a much larger health crisis. Can you talk about the health benefits of moving more and the risks of being sedentary?

A: Here are some mind-bending numbers for you:
• 80% of all health-related costs in this country spring from lifestyle problems.
• Elderly people who move frequently are 50% less likely to suffer from dementia.
• Hispanic children born in the United States have a 50% chance of becoming diabetic, which has as much to do with their lack of access to safe outdoor play areas as with their diet.
• Less than 1% of kids bike to school today; they no longer move through their communities on their own.

You want to solve the health-care crisis? Launch a federally funded, nationwide Move Movement that targets all age groups and requires employers to get on board. We legislated away smoking in public spaces; we can legislate in movement requirements at school, at work, in city planning, and more.

Q: A lot of people might say, "Well, if you don't exercise, that's your fault—you're lazy."

A: I admit when I started writing American Idle I had the mind-set of a fit, former college athlete who had never had any problems staying thin and athletic. But I am a changed person now. I went on reporting adventures, like going into an inner city Hispanic neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and seeing firsthand how desperately immigrants wanted to eat healthier diets, wanted to get their children outside in safe public spaces, and wanted to add exercise to their intensely busy days, but couldn’t because of lack of time, safe access to public spaces, and no money. Hearing these people tell me these stories convinced me that willpower is a factor but not the primary factor. I would never exercise if I had the tough lives these women had, and yet they do; they walk with their churches, they try. I have the utmost admiration for their spirit.

Q: How can we change so that we move more?

A: This country is long overdue for a Move Movement. We need to address the lack of physical activity for most Americans with the same intensity that we attacked the smoking problem and seat belt problem. This is not just a health problem—this is a social and cultural disaster of the first order. Children today lack stamina, mental focus, live insular lives indoors. Today’s generation is the first generation in U.S. history to have a lower life expectancy than their parents, despite advances in medical care, because their lifestyle habits undermine the gains.

What to do?

  • Every 10 years, most townships resurface their roads. Require them to add a clearly marked bicycle lane. Require all new developments to consider the needs of walkers and bikers.
  • Press the federal government to expand its Safe Routes to Schools program, which has been a huge success in getting more kids to walk to school. It’s still in the experimental stage and it needs to become part of the standard national agenda for every school district.
  • The U.S. should follow Europe’s lead, especially Sweden, where a lot of schools have two 15-minute physical movement breaks (for all ages, and it’s not the same as recess). They also have paid movement breaks for employees. The employees do not have to “exercise”; they just have to leave their desk areas.
  • Something as simple as access to a shower at work or access to a safe biking trail can increase people’s activity by 25%. That sort of shift represents millions of dollars in saved medical costs.

The changes don’t have to be draconian, just smart. I use a stand-up desk, for example, and never sit more than about four hours a day. It’s completely transformed the way I work. I’ve read articles about some Midwestern schools trying stand-up desks for kids, and they’ve been hugely popular.

We need to stop talking about exercise classes and calories and get down to the more serious issues at stake here.


Previous posts by Shaun Chavis:
Ugh, I've Regained 8 Pounds! How I'm Regrouping
Taking a Cue From Julie & Julia: Can More Time in the Kitchen Make You Thin?
I'm a 225-Pound Weight-Loss Editor. Get Over It.

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