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Monday, January 20, 2020
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Even more than obesity, inactivity is shortening our lives


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We’re on the cusp of spring, and the weather is beginning to act like it, so we might actually start to enjoy some time out of doors. The recent stretch of wintry months has certainly provided plenty of excuses for staying inside where it’s warm and comfortable.

Of course, many of us are experts when it comes to making excuses for sitting on the couch.

This winter has been particularly icy, leading to a big demand for de-icing products and complaints about the passability of sidewalks. Those most likely to be out chopping ice from walkways were older people. Sure, that demographic skews towards retirees who, it could be argued, have more time to be bothered with such things. But the observations, admittedly non-scientific, do jibe with actual scientific findings about our increasingly inactive lifestyles.

Older generations who grew up without all of the technology that predominates our lives today are perhaps less likely to be entranced by the toys, finding time to do, well, actual things. Subsequent waves of younger people are decidedly less active.

“Go outside and play,” which was a popular suggestion even when I was kid, seems to be on a dramatic decline: young people just aren’t as active as they once were, especially outside of organized sports and school gym classes.

Beyond electronic distractions – kids spend hours glued to the TV, computer, video console, tablet or smartphone – that are making this the most sedentary generation, there’s just not enough simple activities such as getting out to enjoy the winter activities this year has provided.

Research shows participation levels for organized sports and school activities have remained relatively stable, but there’s been a marked decrease in the kind of impromptu exercise – walking and biking to get places, pickup sports with friends, and the like – that used to be commonplace. The absence of such activities is largely responsible for the fact just five per cent of young people between the ages of 5 and 17 get the prescribed 60 minutes of activity each day.

Something as simple as walking to destinations less than one kilometre away instead of parents driving their kids everywhere would make a big difference, but we don’t partake.

Report cards issued by ParticipACTION, for instance, notes the phenomenon, calling the trend hazardous to the long-term health of our children. It’s another indictment of helicopter parenting.

Over-supervising kids or keeping them indoors to ensure they are safe limits their opportunities for physical activity, endangering their long-term well-being. It’s time to get out of kids’ way, let them play outside and give them the freedom to occasionally scrape a knee, the experts suggests.

The study notes the consequences of keeping children indoors can be more hazardous than letting your kids be the free-range variety.

In the long-term, sedentary behaviour and inactivity elevate odds of developing chronic diseases, including heart disease, type-2 diabetes, some forms of cancer and mental health problems. Hyper-parenting limits physical activity and can harm mental health.

When children are closely supervised outside, they are less active. Children are more curious about, and interested in, natural spaces than pre-fabricated play structures. Kids who engage in active outdoor play in natural environments demonstrate resilience, self-regulation and develop skills for dealing with stress later in life.

Outdoor play that occurs in minimally structured, free and accessible environments encourages socialization with peers, the community and the environment, reduces feelings of isolation, builds inter-personal skills and facilitates healthy development. Sure, your kids may pick up a few choice words and be exposed to some, well, interesting things, but that’s going to happen anyway – and there will be much more of it when they’re cloistered indoors in front of the television and Internet, which has been known to contain information some parents take issue with.

Our plugged-in lifestyles shoulder much of the blame. Studies show that kids who play more video games or watch more television are more sedentary and consume unhealthy snacks, leading to the well-documented obesity epidemic. Beyond making them fatter, inactivity is bad for children’s brains.

ParticipACTION’s 2018 report card notes that hearts and lungs aren’t the only organs suffering from inactivity. A growing body of evidence indicates that physical activity in childhood is essential for a healthy brain. The numbers aren’t good, however.

“The data around physical activity is alarming: on average, kids are still sitting too much and moving too little to reach their full potential,” the report notes.

Kids aren’t the only ones suffering from our sedentary lifestyles,  of course. In fact, on the whole we are twice as likely to die due to factors related to inactivity than to obesity.

A 12-year study involving some 335,000 European men and women, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eliminating inactivity would cut mortality rates by nearly 7.5 per cent, or 676,000 deaths, but eliminating obesity would cut rates by just 3.6 per cent.

There is, of course, a correlation between the to, though even non-obese people increase their risk of premature death if they remain inactive.

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