The Newseum is a popular Washington D.C. tourist destination. It sort of memorializes sitting around and reading the newspaper, something that's being rapidly replaced by sitting around and reading boring postings on social media.
So perhaps it was fitting that public health specialists gathered at the Newseum last week for a four-hour panel discussion imaginatively titled "Inactivity in America: A Looming Public Health Crisis." At the energetic urging of my editor, I went and sat through all four hours of it.
Although it involved a lot of sitting, the discussion wasn’t only about our individual need to be more physically active; it mainly discussed how the country can adopt a mentality that says constant movement--as opposed to just doing exercises--is needed for a healthy lifestyle, not just for looking good or appearing to be fit on the surface.
The question that lingered over the conference and that each panel member tried to answer was why it's so hard for a lot of us to stay physically active and truly realize that constant movement can add years to our lives.
We’ve all heard of the reports, statistics and studies on the importance of being physically active, but inactivity in the United States and other developed countries is still not just a huge problem, it’s a full-on crisis. And based on the findings released in the conference, it’s time for health leaders and consumers to go into crisis mode.
Low fitness levels
According to recent study findings, 41 percent of all U.S. adults are inactive or underactive, and 25 to 35 percent of Americans have low respiratory fitness due to sitting most of the day, whether at work, at home or in the car.
When it comes to the adult population, the average person’s life just isn’t set up to include a lot of physical activity, since most towns in the U.S. are steeped in the car culture and many jobs force you to sit instead of walk, run or stand.
In addition, most people set up their homes to be as comfy as possible, to maximize down time and get plenty of relaxation and sit-down time.
In short, inactivity is the nation’s biggest health problem, even among the other serious diseases and ailments the United States currently has.
Not just looks
What might be called "fitness porn" is to blame for some of Americans' antipathy towards fitness.
Dr. S. Robert Licther, a professor and researcher at George Mason University, conducts studies on the societal effects of the entertainment and news media and he said that many publications, including fitness magazines, focus on body appearance and looking good, instead of urging people to stay active because of good health.
This is particularly truth of men’s fitness magazines, Lichter said, as there is an excessive focus on exercise instead of promoting basic physical activity, which doesn’t have to be boring calisthenics or traditional work-out routines that people get bored with quickly.
“It’s all about looking good,” said Licther. “That’s the one area where women and men’s magazine look alike. There are reasons that looking good is a good thing [including] quite frankly, getting women. Not that I’m against propagating the race but being healthy while you do it is a good thing.”
So just what will it take for adults and children to incorporate physical fitness in their everyday lives without force or reminder?
The panelists, which included an ex-NFL player as well as scientists and researchers, agreed that schools, federally-funded programs and local initiatives have to get the message out that physical activity is different from exercise, and that just plain old continuous movement on an everyday basis will provide get the physical activity that you need in most cases.
Way of life
Dr. James Hill, the founding Executive Director of the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, said the way people currently live doesn’t allow them to naturally get in the required amount of physical activity for good health.
This differs from early generations, where in many cases people had to walk to work or worked in jobs that required a great deal of physical activity, but now technology allows people to move very little if they choose, which has contributed to the United States' serious obesity problem.
Another panelist was Coy Wire, who played nine years in the NFL for both the Buffalo Bills and the Atlanta Falcons. He pointed to a Stanford University study that said much of America’s day is spent looking at a glowing rectangle.
“If we don’t do something about this phenomenon that’s happening, we're soon going to have a generation of kids that have these gigantic thumbs. So we need to get these kids moving.”
Worst time of the day
Dr. Lisa Witherspoon, an assistant professor at the University of Florida’s School of Physical Education and Exercise Science, says in order to bring up a generation of children for whom physical activity is a normal part of life, schools have to first completely change the way physical education is being taught.
“Physical Education isn’t recess. It’s not game time. It’s time to develop the essential and necessary skills that kids have to learn in order to feel comfortable moving their bodies,” Witherspoon said.
“In terms of physical education, I agree some of you had terrible physical education experiences. I have many friends that think about physical education and they say ‘it was the worst time of the day'. ”
She also said in order to get children to like physical education more, school districts are starting to remove the competitive aspects of gym class and doing away with games like dodge-ball, since such games only allow the athletic kids in class to get the most out of the activity.
Witherspoon said that gym class isn’t enough to ingrain an active lifestyle for children, and pointed to a recent study that suggests 65 percent of children are completely inactive when they’re at home, which happens to be the majority of the time.