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We are all sitting too much, and technology isn't helping

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Even the smallest increase in activity may yield health benefits

A pair of new articles published in the BMJ this week highlight the debilitating effects of sedentary lifestyles and suggest a new public policy focus on getting the most inactive people moving. The average American is now sitting or otherwise inactive for over eight waking hours per day — a figure which only rises with age — and no age group above 30 is committing more than 30 minutes to moderate or vigorous activity per day. All adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week — a broadly supported guideline that has been endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO). However, the new BMJ papers suggest that even that modest goal might be too high for some people and the priority should be to avoid inactivity as much as possible.

The WHO identifies physical inactivity as "the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality" and estimates that it's caused 3.2 million deaths globally. Physically inactive people struggle against a variety of factors that discourage them from healthier lifestyles, according to the BMJ reports. Among them are "inexperience with intense physical effort, associated fatigue and soreness, risk of injury and medical complications." Older people, in particular, can feel alienated and face a limited availability of suitable facilities.

"Health benefits begin with any increase above the very lowest levels of activity."

Reviewing recent research into the health benefits of keeping active, Philipe Barreto of the University Hospital of Toulouse and a group led by Phillip Sparling of the Georgia Institute of Technology both find compelling evidence of a "dose response" to activity: every incremental increase brings with it a reduction in the risk of death or chronic disease and an improvement in cognitive and physical function. Their prescription is a familiar one — sit less and move around more — but both articles try to move the discussion away from specific goals and toward a more gradual (and, in their judgment, more realistic) approach.

Having recently returned from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which was filled with amazing new experiences that a person can enjoy while sitting down, I felt compelled to get in touch with the authors of these studies to ask how they felt about the influence of technology on the goal of increasing activity. Neville Owen, from the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Australia, a co-author with Professor Sparling, is convinced we're doing more harm than good. He doesn't see the growing tide of wearable fitness devices designed to nudge us into being more active as offsetting the negative effects of "the television set; the metabolically-toxic pairing of the chair and the workplace computer; and the automobile." He's particularly troubled by the increasing commute times in urban areas, which, together with jobs anchored to desktop computers, are leading many of us to more sedentary habits.

"If technologies promoting physical activity and those promoting sedentary time reach a kind of balance is difficult to know."

Philipe Barreto, the author of the other study, is more equivocal in his assessment of technology's impact. He shares Owen's displeasure with the TV, saying that "computers, television, and other tech inventions increase sedentary time," however he's more optimistic about the usefulness of pedometers, web-based health trackers, and even "the increase of video-based physical activities." Yes, there are technologies that keep us planted on our butts, but there are others — like Microsoft's Kinect, Nintendo's Wii motion controllers, and the new wave of VR headsets — that push us in the opposite direction. "If technologies promoting physical activity and those promoting sedentary time reach a kind of balance is difficult to know," concludes Barreto, though "physical inactivity is a highly prevalent behaviour worldwide and technological inventions are not the only or even the main culprit."

It's important not to paint the entire tech industry with the same brush, particularly when the latest and most detailed data about inactivity is being obtained with the help of accelerometers. The researchers are in agreement, however, that there are significant ill effects to our addiction to personal technology, which seem unlikely to be offset anytime soon.