New Study Links Changing Nature of U.S. Workforce to Obesity Epidemic

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • OK, I think I’ve had an important “a-ha moment.” I recently wrote a new sharepost entitled, “Regular Movement Critical to Your Health When You Have a Desk Job.” Now a New York Times story by Tara Parker-Pope describes new research that points to another way that a desk job is hurting our health. It turns out that holding a desk job may be one of the key reasons behind the obesity epidemic.

    In this study, researchers reviewed the changing workplace from 1960 until present and found that jobs that requiring physical activity have plunged. In 1960, 50% of jobs required moderate physical activity; now, only 20% of jobs require this level of physical activity, while 80% of American jobs are sedentary or only require light activity. Parker-Pope wrote, “The shift translates to an average decline of 120 to 140 calories a day in physical activity, closely matching the weight gain over the past five decades, according to the report, published Wednesday in the journal PLos One.” That’s important information because it’s currently estimated that one in three Americans is obese. This study is believed to be the first to estimate how much daily caloric expenditure has dropped due to the changing nature of the workplace.

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    Parker-Pope notes that the emphasis on declining workplace activity is a new way of thinking and suggests that health care professionals have missed a key contributor to the weight epidemic. The New York Times article quotes Dr. Timothy S. Church, the lead author and an exercise researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, as saying, “There are a lot of people who say it’s all about food. But the work environment has changed so much we have to rethink how we’re going to attack this problem.”

    And in my mind, this makes sense when I stop to think about how my relatives have lived over the generations. I’ve got pictures of my great-aunts and uncles in their youth. They looked slim and trim, and many of them were involved in physical labor, such as farming. Then you can look at my parents, who owned small retain businesses that required them to be standing, lifting, and moving regularly during their workdays.  They both had some weight gain in middle age, but weren’t obese. Now, my job as well as those held by most of my friends requires sitting at a computer doing mental work.

    I’ve started to explore more of the research by Dr. James Levine, who works with the Mayo Clinic and is a key figure in the emerging field of inactivity studies. I recently purchased a copy of his book, Move a Little, Lose A Lot. The subheading sounds promising: Use NEAT (Nonexercise Activity Thermogenesis or the calories you burn really living) to burn 2,100 calories a week at the office, be smarter in as little as three hours, reduce fatigue by 65%, and extend your life span by 4 years.  “Sitting was once a break in a busy day. Now it is the singular way most of us spend our time,” Levine writes in the book introduction. “Did you ever stop to think whether your body was equipped to sit for thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, or maybe more hours a day? Did you ever consider what happens to your heart, muscles, and metabolism – that calorie-burning engine that fitness magazines are always advising us on how to ‘rev up’ with green tea and exercise – when you sit virtually immobile for more than 80 percent of your waking hours?”

  • I’ll be doing more shareposts on Levine’s book once I get a chance to read it, but I think that Church and Levine are on to something. Perhaps it is time that we rethink the work day and plan for more opportunities to move. I decided today to adopt a new practice in my own work – after I finish a major project, I’m going to get out of the chair and move. Today it meant taking the dogs for a one-mile walk; tomorrow, they may get another walk, but I also will get some physical activity by going to the grocery store and pushing the cart around the aisles.  And this weekend, it’ll be gardening. So let’s figure out how to get away from the computer during our 9-to-5 jobs so we can start to burn up those extra calories.

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Published On: June 02, 2011