Food for Thought

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Why sports and exercise are barely relevant and what really counts is occupational and household activity.
Guest contributor Prof Arya Sharma discusses a paper that suggests why attempts to encourage recreational physical activity are largely doomed to fail.

Prof. Arya Sharma
Prof. Arya Sharma

There is no doubt that reducing sedentariness and increasing physical activity can have enormous health benefits. This is why public health policies and health promotion bombard us with messages on how to get more active – unfortunately, much of the advice focuses on increasing engagement in recreational and volitional sports and exercise.

A paper by Chuck Ratzlaff from Harvard University, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine now suggests why attempts to encourage recreational physical activity are largely doomed to fail. This is simply not where most people’s physical activity happens – nor is it likely to happen. Most people simply do not like being physically active enough to want to do it – when given the choice, they’d much rather sit or lie down (which makes perfect evolutionary sense). It is therefore but natural, that about 80% of total daily physical activity in most people is associated with occupational and non-leisure (household chores).

Sporting activity formed a small fraction of overall physical activity compared with occupational and household activity (even more so in women) in Ratzlaff’s analysis of his recent population-based research measuring lifetime physical activity. If anything women have gotten even more physically active than before.

This not only means that most of us (even those, who do not seek out or participate in ‘recreational’ physical activity) are probably more active than generally assumed. It also means that perhaps the focus of public health measures to promote a more active ‘lifestyle’ may need to focus more on restoring physical activity in occupational and household settings.

Obviously, re-introducing physical labour into the workplace and household may prove far more challenging than simply appealing to people to go for a walk or run (to nowhere).

That workplaces, buildings and whole communities can be re-engineered to promote physical activity (whether you like it or not) is, for example, exemplified in the new Edmonton Clinic Health Academy at the University of Alberta, which incidentally, also houses our School of Public Health. Anyone entering this building is immediately faced with a wide open staircase (not stairwell!) – the elevators are rather hidden in a corner (and for some reason appear not to be accessible half the time). At any time there are people crowding the stairs. Most people will climb stairs when they have to – like it or not. (Simply putting up a sign pointing to the hidden stairwell on the other hand has little effect.)

The point is that we need to be more creative in designing and transforming our work and home environments and even our whole communities into spaces where physical activity is not just the easy but perhaps even the only choice. Perhaps, when it comes to building codes, it is time to establish codes for ‘active’ buildings in the same manner in which we now have building codes for environmental friendliness.

Despite all efforts (including tax breaks), we will probably not get the majority of the population to really ‘like and want’ to be physically active – most people would rather watch sports than do them (especially after a long day at work). This is why increasing occupational and household physical activity by 10% may have a huge population impact while increasing volitional sports and exercise by even 100% may do little (the multiple of zero is still zero!).

Check out Dr Sharma’s website HERE. You can also subscribe to his regular blog postings.