The Dangers of Inactivity

Fitness legend Jack LaLanne passed away five years ago at the age of 96. Long before exercise went mainstream, the “Godfather of Fitness” was informing Americans about the importance of physical activity. His TV program The Jack LaLanne Show, which debuted in 1951 and ran for an impressive 34 years, encouraged people to get off the couch and get moving.

LaLanne dedicated his life to spreading the word about the importance of exercise, giving motivational speeches on healthy living, and demonstrating his physical prowess. At age 42, he set a world record by doing 1,033 push-ups in 23 minutes. Twenty years later, to commemorate the US bicentennial and 13 original colonies, he swam a mile in the Long Beach harbor, towing 13 boats carrying 76 passengers—while handcuffed!

These days, everyone knows about the benefits of exercise. What you may not realize—and what new studies are focusing on—are the very serious dangers of inactivity.

Excessive “Screen Time” Can Hurt You

Researchers from the United Kingdom followed 4,500 Scottish men and women and looked at the impact of “screen time” entertainment—TV, video games, and Internet surfing—on cardiovascular health. They found that the people who spent at least two hours of their leisure time in front of a TV or computer were more than twice as likely to have a heart attack or other cardiac event, and those who spent four or more hours parked in front of the screen were 50 percent more likely to die!

This is just one of several studies demonstrating the adverse effects of excessive screen time and highlighting the dangers of inactivity. Weight gain is a big part of the problem. Obviously, if you’re lounging around, you’re burning fewer calories. Plus, research shows that people eat more when sitting in front of the tube. But it goes beyond calories. In the Scottish study, in addition to higher BMIs, the “recreational sitters,” as they were called—including those who got some exercise during the day—had higher levels of cholesterol, C-reactive protein (CRP), and other metabolic risk factors. As for kids, excessive screen time is associated not only with obesity but also with elevated blood pressure, poor sleep, inattention, and in infants and toddlers, delayed language development.

Americans watch an average of three to four hours of TV a day, and that’s not counting leisure time on the computer. I’m not suggesting that you get rid of your TV or Facebook account. I watch my share of movies on TV, and I’m on Facebook myself. But do make a conscious effort to cut back. Not all sedentary pastimes have health risks. For example, there have been no negative links with activities such as reading and playing cards or board games. Better yet, get outside, take up a sport or hobby, go to sporting or cultural events, play with your children or grandkids, or check out these other tips to get healthy. Just don’t spend the bulk of your evenings and weekends in front of the tube.

Walk Your Way to Health

You also need to figure out a way to reap the benefits of exercise on a daily basis. Compared to other countries, we just aren’t, pardon the pun, stepping up. Based on daily pedometer readings of more than 1,100 Americans, we average a little over 5,100 steps per day (less than 5,000 is considered sedentary)—far behind the 9,600+ logged by Australians and Swiss. No wonder their obesity rates are 16 and 8 percent, respectively, compared to our 34 percent.

Even if you’re chained to a desk at work, you don’t have to let the dangers of inactivity get to you. You can always slip in a little physical activity, and a pedometer is a great motivator to get moving. In one study, overweight, inactive women who began wearing these step-counting devices added 2,000 steps to their daily average and had improvements in weight and blood pressure. Begin slowly, but aim for 10,000 steps a day.

If that sounds intimidating, it’s easier than you may think. Elizabeth, a patient of mine who tracked her pedometer readings, reported that when her job required intense computer work and she didn’t have time to do much of anything else, she averaged around 3,500 steps. But on days that included time outside with her kids, shopping, etc., she racked up 10,000-13,000 steps. And a busy day full of housework and chores plus an hour-long walk resulted in more than 15,000!

Make Jack LaLanne Proud

According to a summary of 40 published studies, physical inactivity increases the risk of 25 health conditions, including obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, depression, erectile dysfunction, some types of cancer, and accelerated aging. You can’t control all disease risk factors, but exercise is one that you can—and must. The benefits of exercise and the dangers of inactivity are clear. Make a commitment to get active and stick with it.

My Recommendations

Get a pedometer and aim for a minimum of 10,000 steps a day. Pedometers are sold in drugstores, sporting goods stores, online, or by calling (800) 810-6655.

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