James N. Roemmich, PhD
Two weeks ago, I wrote about how we are designed to be physically active. Physical activity helps keep our muscles, bones, heart, blood vessels and mind healthy. During the last few decades, mechanization and technological advances have reduced the practical need to be active and, as a result, people have become more sedentary. We sit more.
Today, I focus on how our home, work and neighborhood environments can sway our decisions about whether we move about or continue to sit. We usually think about organizing our indoor and outdoor environments to allow us to do less work. We don't think much about how these decisions can affect our daily choices related to health. For example, the use of remote controls increases the amount of TV we watch. We're more likely to remain seated and remotely flip through channels until we find something we want to watch. If we had to walk over to the TV and stand while manually going through all of the channels we may be more likely to think that watching the next program is not worth the effort. We may be more likely to turn the TV off and do something that is more active. Just the act of standing to change the channel would provide health benefits. Recent research demonstrates that prolonged sitting at home or work is not healthy.
Physical activity has been in some cases designed out of the daily routine. Many people pursue leisure time more often than physical activity and, so, have arranged their living space to promote a sedentary lifestyle. For example comfortable furniture may be arranged in homes around televisions and computers.
Research shows that people tend to choose sedentary behaviors over physical activities-for example watching TV or riding in a car can take precedence over moving to an exercise DVD or riding a bicycle to work. Arranging our environments to promote being sedentary makes it even harder to choose to be physically active.
For the sake of health, we need to design physical activity back into our lives. This involves arranging our home, work, and neighborhood environments to make it easier to be physically active and to find ways of making being active more fun and enjoyable.
One way to start is to rearrange your home to make it easier to be active. Identify the activities that you want to pursue, be it gardening, walking around the block, or curling. Then keep the proper clothing and footwear where you can see them so that they act as reminder of these enjoyable active pursuits. Keep your sports equipment handy - not tucked away in a closet or up on a high shelf. Keep bikes in good repair and ready to ride. Look for ways to reduce access to TVs and computers - try to limit their combined use to a couple of hours a day. Use some of the time that you free-up by not watching TV to be physically active.
Arrange your work environment for being more active and to decrease long periods of sitting. Even short bursts of activity that interrupt sitting can be healthy. Choose the farthest parking spot. Take the stairs rather than the elevator. Walk around the block a few times during lunch and break time. If you need to talk to someone, walk to their office and talk to them while standing. Stand while talking on the phone and as you sort through and read your mail.
A great way to reduce sitting is to stand-up while doing computer or other clerical work. Standing desks have been around for hundreds of years, and are again becoming quite popular. Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway all used standing desks. Standing helps to keep you fidgeting and alert.
You can also seek out neighborhood environments that make it easy to be active. Grand Forks has great parks that offer many choices of organized and unorganized activities across the seasons. We have wonderful resources in the Greenway and many other paths for walking or bicycling - these can be used for active commuting as well as for recreation. You'll find that seeing people being active on the paths is a constant reminder to be physically active yourself.
Our community offers additional opportunities. We have nearly a dozen climate-controlled fitness centers each of which provides many options for physical activity. Some have monthly memberships that allow you to try a variety of activities at a modest cost.
Physical activities are more enjoyable when you can choose the duration, type and intensity of activity. Such choice also increases participation. So take advantage of the many physical activity options available to you in our area.
Remember, the best health benefits come from both increased activity and reduced sitting. These benefits are easier for you to obtain than you may think. Healthful physical activity can be had in bouts as short as 10 minutes. Health benefits from reduced sitting can be had by getting upright for short amounts of time each hour to stretch, to walk, to get a drink of water, or cup of coffee (skip the doughnuts), or to walk around the block at break time. These short bouts of activity also help refresh your mind so that you can be more creative and productive.
You can find more information about physical activity guidelines and reducing sedentary behaviors at www.cnpp.usda.gov.