Easy Street, Lazy Bones

Modern conveniences could cost us our fitness

THURSDAY, Dec. 27, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- As society continues to produce creative new ways to make our lives easier and more efficient, we may, in fact, be cutting our lives short by eliminating the small inconveniences that keep us on our feet.

That's the conclusion of many doctors who warn that the less physical activity we get, the more likely we are to develop a plethora of diseases and conditions that are exacerbated and sometimes even caused by inactivity.

"One of the main reasons we're seeing such increases in everything from heart disease and obesity to diabetes is because people not only aren't exercising as much as they should, but physical activity in general has really kind of been raked out of our lives," says Dr. John O'Kane, an assistant professor of orthopedics and sports medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle.

"It used to be that people at least pushed their lawn mower around once a week; now they ride it around once a week. It used to be that if you went to a three-story store or office, you'd have to take the stairs; now you can take the escalator. Even big parking lots have shuttle buses so you don't have to walk to your car. And then you've got television and sitting in front of the computer to slow people's lives down even more," he explains.

Other culprits, ironically, are the ever-expanding advances in medicine that make us believe we can live forever, he adds.

"In American society, the philosophy runs counter-current to the idea of a healthy lifestyle," O'Kane says. "We don't want to eat right, we want to take a pill. We don't want to exercise or quit smoking, we want to have a very slick heart procedure to clean out our coronary arteries when we're 50. We want to do what we want and then have technology fix it."

"But the funny thing is, the better our technology gets, the more we realize that, yes, it's true that more things can be done. But, the real issue is having a healthy lifestyle to begin with," he adds.

O'Kane points to a recent study suggesting that, counter to previous beliefs, hormone-replacement therapy does not appear to help prevent heart disease in women -- it's just that the women in earlier studies led healthier lifestyles.

"So the more science you do, the more it comes back to the same point, which is it's bad to smoke, it's bad to drink too much alcohol and it's bad to be sedentary," he says. "And if you really want to be healthy, you need to address those things."

Getting enough exercise isn't nearly as daunting as many suspect, says Dr. Barry Franklin, director of cardiac rehabilitation at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.

"Doctors are now realizing that the intensity of exercise does not have to be high or vigorous in order to get substantial health benefits," he says. "So we're encouraging people to just be more active in their daily living.

"People used to believe that you had to work out for 30 to 50 minutes continuously to get any benefits," Franklin adds. "But we now recognize that the effects of exercise are cumulative. So even several, short 10-minute bouts, science has shown, can be equivalent to one 30-minute bout of exercise."

What To Do

Here are a few more suggestions for fun ways to get moving:

  • Dancing;
  • Swimming;
  • Taking the stairs at work -- even a few flights count;
  • Going for a walk during lunch hour;
  • Riding your bicycle to work or on weekends;
  • Mowing the lawn with an old-fashioned push mower;
  • Taking the kids anywhere on foot;
  • Taking a martial-arts class as a family. Try anything, from the gentle movements of Tai Chi to the vigorous Tae Kwan Do.

Visit the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center for more fitness tips. Or try the American College of Sports Medicine's guidelines for healthy aerobic activity. (To view the guidelines, you'll need Adobe Acrobat Reader, which you can download here.)

SOURCES: Interviews with John O'Kane, M.D., assistant professor of orthopedics and sports medicine, University of Washington, Seattle; Barry Franklin, Ph.D., director of cardiac rehabilitation, William Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, Mich.
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