Health and Fitness: Toxic Activity Environment | Features

Last week I presented the idea that we live in a “toxic environment,” which provides easy access to high-calorie, unhealthy, inexpensive foods and encourages physical inactivity. The focus was on the toxic food environment, so now is the time to explore the toxic environment of activity that makes it easy to be inactive and can discourage activity.

The environment affects our physical activity on many levels. The built environment refers to the planning of our communities, including roads, sidewalks, the availability of public transportation, the whereabouts of homes and businesses, and even the design of buildings. If you live in a mixed-use area with plenty of well-maintained sidewalks that connect your home to schools, parks, churches, restaurants, stores, and businesses, the built environment will likely support more activity. In major cities, an efficient public transport network can increase your activity.

However, many people live in areas where there are no sidewalks or, if there are, the distances between destinations are too far to make walking comfortable. Or they live in a neighborhood that is separated by a distance or geographically (perhaps a busy road) from other places they go. Even where sidewalks exist, their use can be difficult due to poor maintenance, vehicular traffic, or dangerous road crossings. Even with pedestrian signals, there may not be enough time to cross the street safely, which is a serious limitation for those with limited mobility. In many cases, the built environment can discourage – and even prevent – physical activity.

The built environment includes interior spaces as well. If the building you work in has clean, safe, and accessible stairs, you are more likely to use the stairs instead of the elevator. Even the design of offices and workspaces can influence activity. If your office has a desk and a chair, you will almost certainly be sitting most of the day. Even a small increase in activity that comes from using a standing desk or an alternative to a traditional chair, such as sitting on a stationary ball, can build up during the day. Some people even have walking desks, so they can walk while they work!

At work and at home, technology and labor-saving devices make it easy to be idle. At work, you can communicate with your co-workers by phone or email instead of going to their office to talk. Entire groups of people can hold video meetings where everyone sits at their own desk, even though everyone works in the same building. At home, you can change the TV channel, connect with friends and family, and even order dinner from the comfort of your couch. Leaf blowers and riding lawn mowers reduce the physical effort needed to do yard work, and robotic brooms allow you to sit back and watch the floors clean.

The good news is that you can change the way you react to a toxic activity environment to increase your activity level. You may need to drive to a store or restaurant if it’s too far to walk, but you can park your car further away to get a few extra steps. You can get up from your desk to talk to a co-worker instead of calling or emailing. At home, you can get up from the sofa during commercials or take short “screen” breaks to get around. It is perfectly acceptable to leave the leaf blower in the garage and use a rake to clean the leaves in your yard.