Are you sitting comfortably? Hopefully not, according to the authors of a recent British Heart Foundation (BHF) report.
British sitting habits, or ‘sedentary behaviours’, have been blamed for heightening risks of cardiovascular disease (as well as costing the NHS a whopping £1.2 billion a year). The World Health Organisation now classes sedentary behaviour in the top 10 leading causes of death worldwide.
While these health actors denounce a new ‘pandemic’ of physical inactivity and call for a change in public health priorities, there remains an elephant, or even two elephants, in the room.
The first is that most of us are actually required (and often paid) to engage daily in the aforementioned ‘sedentary behaviour’, rather than this being simply a matter of ‘personal choice’. The second is that ‘physical inactivity’ is not a practice per se, but rather the failure to comply to new set of moral norms.
We tend to forget that the category of the ‘physically inactives’ which now includes 20 million Britons is in fact a constructed category. One that morphs depending on public health organisations’ latest guidelines as to what is currently deemed sufficient physical activity for the average adult.
To improve population health, the NHS have called for people to take individual responsibility for all this sitting. In a controversial statement, epidemiology professor Dr Min-Lee assimilated physical inactivity to cigarette smoking. But telling people that sitting is bad for them might not have the desired effect, since this ‘sedentary behaviour’ (as it is referred to in health science circles) happens to be deeply embedded in the structures of everyday life in British society.
It appears that we do indeed spend an extraordinary amount of our time sitting, about nine and a half hours per day for adults of working age in the UK, according to the BHF’s recent report.
Were we not to wallow in an unhealthy state of desk-induced ‘physical inactivity’, we would risk losing our jobs, and certainty failing in higher education. Sitting is still a valuable lesson learnt from childhood. Easily forgotten is the long (and often painful) disciplinary training of sitting still in the classroom, assemblies, in church, on the bus, in waiting rooms.
To offer another health analogy, it sounds a bit like being told to eat five fruit and veg a day, while being served unhealthy junk food for lunch by the state, and then again by private corporations.
Is there an alternative to the paradigm that states that physical activity is simply a ‘choice’, where time and cost is a matter of individual responsibility?
A heavily publicised example of an alternative model is the Google workplace. Employees have the option of building their own creative desks, such as standing or treadmill desks. Employees often also benefit from a free gym membership, a bicycle and access to rock climbing walls as part of a broader corporate health and wellbeing package.
Other less enviable approaches include the Japanese corporate model, where employees’ BMI is a matter of corporate responsibility.
Firms face financial penalties should they fail to bring their employees’ weight under control. These models highlight the possibility of the employer playing a role in promoting employees’ physical health and wellbeing (albeit sometimes only through intrusive waistline measuring).
The assumption made by British health authorities that physical inactivity is a lifestyle choice obscures other realities; the fact is that few of us are offered the option of a standing desk (let alone a hybrid treadmill), nor are we granted free access to sports facilities. In fact, you often have to be working in positions at the higher end of the social strata in order to be offered free bicycles and gym memberships.
Making sport and physical activity available and affordable to people across Britain might make a few more people want to stand up.
Image: April Vest