Sit less, live more: Why sitting is the new tobacco - and how to quit the habit
Are you sitting down? Yes, the news is bad, but you may want to stand up to read it, because the studies piling up on my desk are very, very clear: most of us are spending too much of our lives sitting, and so are our children - in fact, we could be setting them up for shorter, unhealthier lives than our own. "The vast majority of children are exceeding the target for sedentary screen time," says Dr. Mark Tremblay, the director of healthy active living and obesity research at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute.
Tremblay is also the chief scientific officer for the 2012 Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. That's a long title, but the lesson the Report Card shares is short: sit less, and you'll live more. Tremblay shares the recommended limits for recreational (not school-related) screen time: under the age of two, it's none. For kids aged three to four, it's one hour. And for those aged five to 17, it's two hours per day. But according to the report, 46 per cent of Canadian kids get three hours or less of active play per week, and 63 per cent of their free time is spent being sedentary. Screens - televisions, computers, games, tablets and phones - are a major issue, says Tremblay.
The consequence is "an increase in positive caloric balance," he says. In other words, our kids aren't burning off the calories they're taking in. The result can be weight gain and health loss.
Tremblay uses the analogy of a bank account for health - when children are active, they're challenging their bodies, depositing good health into elements such as skeletons and cardiovascular systems.
"In the absence of that challenge or overload, you're not going to end up with as much in your savings account, which you slowly withdraw as you age. It forecasts essentially accelerated aging," he says, adding that pediatric hospitals across the country are seeing increasing cases of traditionally adult conditions such as hypertension.
"It's being said that sitting is the new tobacco," Tremblay says. "It's the public health challenge of our day."
Calgary's Cardel Place is working with Tremblay to change the numbers - and they're starting with children.
"What we've realized is that it's really simple," says Cardel Place general manager Sue Scott. "We need to de-institutionalize recreation ... Instead of focusing on getting 60 minutes (of exercise) a day in, what might make more sense is to get people to move more. The goal becomes to get more active without even thinking about it, through small changes in your lifestyle."
Last year, Cardel Place launched the Raise the Bar project, aiming to increase physical activity and improve health among children, families, and communities (letsraisethebar.ca).
They're working through several initiatives, including the Child+Youth Action Research Project, a study with Mount Royal University that's supported by the Flames Foundation for Life. It's looking at the relationship between children's physical activity levels and motivations, trying out new programs to see what works.
Another partnership, the Campus Calgary Active Living School, with support from Cenovus, is bringing schoolchildren into the recreation centre for a week at a time to learn about active living.
Cardel Place is also taking the active living message out to classrooms beginning this spring, with the Physical Activity Challenge for Kids program developed by University of Calgary kinesiology researcher Larry Katz, supported by the Calgary Foundation.
Scott says it's part of a deliberate focus on raising healthier generations - one that's not based on having to go to a rec centre for a workout.
"We really believe now that it has to start at home ... whether it's the children influencing the parents or the parents influencing the children, it doesn't matter," she says.
"We decided it needed to be a very holistic approach, because mental, emotional, physical and social wellbeing is all interconnected."
The January 2013 Alberta Survey on Physical Activity, from the Alberta Centre for Active Living, reinforces the messages: while 94 per cent of adult Albertans agree that physical activity will keep them healthy, only 59 per cent are physically active enough to gain those health benefits.
Christina Loitz, knowledge transfer specialist with the Centre, says two age groups seem to struggle a little more to get active: older adults, and those at the age when they're likely starting families.
Time pressures, fatigue, lifestyle changes and stress can all contribute to less activity, while higher incomes and good coping skills can contribute to higher levels.
Loitz emphasizes that it's not always factors within our control.
"It's not us being lazy, often, it's that other things are more important at that time, but if we look at our health overall, that's something that's important to all of us. Maybe we need to relook at what's important," she says.
To improve your overall health, she says, simply move more, and move more often.
If you have a sedentary job, Loitz suggests getting up every half-hour to hour to do some kind of movement - even just walking to the water cooler and doing a couple of stretches, changing your posture, using a high desk so you can stand instead of sit, and setting your computer to print to a more distant printer so you have to walk farther.
Whatever you do, avoid the "all or nothing" trap.
"Doing some is better than doing nothing, and the more you can do the better," she says.
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