According to the Pixar classic WALL-E, in the future, humanity takes a seat. Literally. We just cruise around in little pod chairs staring at screens, barely able to move on our own.
That chilling vision is inching closer to reality. A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that, between 2001-2016, American adults and adolescents added more than an hour a day to the time they spend sitting. This is largely due to our increasingly close relationship to computers and it has health experts worried.
Using data collected by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, researchers found that 60 percent of Americans spent at least two hours a day watching videos, either TV shows or on their computer. As a result, “estimated total sitting time increased from… 7.0 to 8.2 [hours per day] among adolescents and from 5.5 to 6.4 h/d among adults,” between 2007-2016, according to the findings.
The hour-plus per day increase is almost entirely tied to computers; TV-watching habits remained fairly consistent during this time. However, the “estimated prevalence of computer use outside school or work for at least 1 h/d increased from 2001 to 2016 (from 43% to 56% for children, from 53% to 57% among adolescents, and from 29% to 50% for adults).”
All of this extra sitting could have serious health consequences, according to the study’s co-author Yin Cao, a cancer epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s very concerning when there’s such an increase in sitting time on a national level across all age groups, especially taking into consideration the health risks that come with this,” Cao said according to The Guardian.
Sitting is Killing Us
What’s particularly alarming about this research is that it may actually underestimate the amount of time we spend sitting. That’s because there was no specific question addressing the time spent on smartphones. The mental health risks associated with social media only compounds the problem.
As Americans become more sedentary, we open ourselves to new health risks.
“Many studies show that TV or video watching time is most strongly associated with chronic disease and increases risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, Type 2 diabetes and overall mortality,” Cao told Time. Part of the issue is that there’s no easy way to intervene; even if you reduce the leisure time you spend watching videos, many of us are constantly on our computers during work.
What to Do?
So what’s a reasonable American to do? Go walk across your home or office and come back for the answer.
Trick question; that was the answer. At least once an hour, take a short break away from your TV or computer and walk around. Standing desks are nice if you have back or neck problems, but in general, standing desks are overrated. The key is real movement.
Another issue is that researchers found demographics played a role, making it difficult to find a one-size-fits-all solution. However, the flipside is that the study “helps set up a baseline for developing interventions for different subgroups,” according to Cao. And because sedentary habits tend to hold from early childhood to late adulthood, it’s important to establish patterns early.
“It calls for system-level changes if possible, whether they involve issues with the environment, education at school or circumstances that make it hard to be physically active,” Cao told Time. “These are hard questions, but from these data, it’s clear it’s something we need to think about.”