11 Mar 2020

Fighting sedentary tendencies with active design

From Nine To Noon, 10:16 am on 11 March 2020

Bums on seats and getting off them is the focus of University of Alberta's Professor John Spence. 

That’s despite his own admission that from an evolutionary perspective, for modern living, doing exercise is actually irrational and being sedentary is rational.

What can be done about the mismatch between the current environment in which most people live, and the physiological and behavioural adaptations that humans have experienced over 50,000 years?

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Photo: 123rf.com

“Humans do what comes naturally when it comes to being physically active or expending energy,” Prof Spence says.

“Over that time, we existed in an environment where it was very hard to find calories, we had to go out and hunt for food. We spent a lot of our energy seeking food and seeking shelter and taking care of ourselves.”

As we move to a modern society, with the energy-saving devices that we have now, we don’t have to move as much to do these things, he says.

“We’re just doing what comes naturally now, we’re saving our energy, waiting for that day when we would need to do that, but we won’t.”

Cultural evolution is far ahead of physical evolution, he says.

We celebrate energy-saving advances, but the body is still prepared for an arduous environment.

He thinks we could be smarter about how we design the places in which we live, work and play to counteract this.

“For instance, can we make it that it's easier and actually more attractive for people to walk or cycle to and from work, or to and from school as opposed to using an automobile.”

In the early 90s, two hikers found a Tyrolean Iceman, now called Ötzi, in the Alps on the border of Austria and Italy.

“They were cutting across a glacier and saw a body partially exposed, and ultimately when it was recovered, they thought originally that it was somebody who had died in an avalanche in the last 50 years or so and they found out it was a person who had died about 5000 years ago.”

The body was mummified and experts were able to determine what they had eaten before dying, found that their lower body was very muscular, that they had arthritis and that they had calcification of the arteries - which can lead to a heart attack.

Around the time Ötzi lived was the agricultural revolution, where people became more sedentary, starting to raise livestock rather than roaming and hunting.

“There was a huge impact on how much we would have been physically moving around as a result of that.”

The industrial revolution in the late-1700s to mid-1800s where people moved from farms to cities to working factories, also changed lifestyles dramatically.

Prof Spencer says telling people to exercise for their health has been around since the 40s and 50s.

But the problem is, you might not see some of the benefits for decades.

“Humans are very sensitive to this more immediate pay-off.”

“Ironically, our tendency to structure and organise our day, and plan around that may be leading to us and particularly our children, to engaging in less free-play and activity.”

Where the biggest changes have occurred, are energy expenditure in the workplace and around the house, he says.

“Those are the things that have changed and we’re trying to encourage people after work to exercise for a longer time when in fact some of the unstructured stuff is what might be might more palatable for us.”

We need programmes for individuals and encourage them to be active, but we can’t restrict or prevent how they do this, he says.

“I truly do believe that if we don’t address how we are constructing the environments in which we live work and play and address it in a way so that it facilitates people moving as opposed to encouraging them not to move, then that’s going to be to our detriment." 

Part of the answer lies in doing things that are FUN - that's an acronym for 'fulfilling', 'useful' or 'necessary'. 

Prof Spence has been applying his expertise in this area by looking at initiatives to get adolescents active. 

He's a co -investigator on the Dunedin based BEATS  (Built Environment and Active Transport to School) research programme which provides an evidence-based service to promote active transportation to Otago schools. 

The research shows not many kids walk beyond 2km to schools, and cycling is not taken up by as many kids as other countries.

Prof Spence says this is partly because of safety concerns and because kids don’t really see cycling as cool. Uniforms can also restrict them riding.

The findings from this research have already been used by multiple government agencies while its mapping data has been used to improve Dunedin's road safety and infrastructure around local secondary schools.