Physical activity and faith

November 30th, 2015

The physical inactivity pandemic

A dangerous disease threatens almost a third of the human race. There’s a significant chance you are among its victims. This disease isn’t Ebola or some mutated flu strain. It’s a sedentary lifestyle.

A 2012 study in The Lancet, a British medical journal, called physical inactivity a “pandemic.” Thirty-one percent of the world’s population fails to meet minimum physical activity recommendations. The resulting inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide. Researchers noted that in 2007 alone, around five and a half million deaths “could have theoretically been prevented” had the individuals been more physically active.

This pandemic’s reach includes the United States. More and more Americans are less and less physically active. According to a survey by the Physical Activity Council (PAC) (which consists of six major sports and manufacturer associations), nearly 83 million Americans age six and older—some 28 percent of the country’s population — live sedentary lifestyles. They don’t take part in any one of the more than 100 specified physical activities, including such options as darts or billiards.

The core of this health crisis, however, isn’t that we exercise too little, but that we sit too much. The average American sits about eight hours a day — far too long for good health. One cardiovascular study explains that even adults who walk briskly for 45 minutes each workday “may spend up to 95% of [their] waking hours sitting” — commuting, working at a desk, eating meals, watching TV. While “current public health guidelines consider [such Americans] ‘physically active,’ ” say the study’s authors, “the term active couch potato or exercising couch potato is probably more appropriate.”

‘Sitting ourselves to death’

“Sitting is more dangerous than smoking,” claims Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic. He tells the Los Angeles Times that sitting “kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death.” 

Several scientific studies in recent years highlight the health risks of prolonged sitting:

• A 2012 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine concludes that adults who sit for more than eight hours daily, even if they also exercise, were at a 15 percent greater risk of dying within three years than adults who sit for fewer than four.

• A 2010 study from the University of South Carolina demonstrated that men who are sedentary for more than 23 hours a week bear a 64 percent greater risk of heart disease-related death than do men sedentary for fewer than 11 hours.

• A 17-year study (1992–2009) by the American Cancer Society revealed that women who sit for longer than six hours daily have an increase risk of breast, ovarian and blood cancer compared to women who sit for fewer than three hours per day. They increase their risk of any cancer by ten percent.

In addition to cancers and cardiovascular disease, too much sitting is linked to aches and pains, excess fat around the waist and obesity, higher blood sugar and higher blood pressure. Levine says that for every hour we sit, we shorten our lives by two.

Why we sit

What makes sitting so hazardous to our health? Much of the science can be explained, but the bottom line is, as Joan Vernikos, former director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division, told U.S. News & World Report, “We weren’t designed to sit.” Levine (writing in his book Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It) agrees: “We have created for ourselves a modern way of living that clashes with the way we’re meant to be.”

In today’s America, we don’t have to move as much as people used to.

• We take cars and mass transportation to get from point A to points B and beyond — sturdy walking shoes or bicycles no longer required.

• We use phone, email, and social media to talk to one another — no need to get up and go see our conversation partners, let alone walk a letter to the post office.

• We stream hours of movies and TV on demand and play immersive, all-absorbing video games — we don’t need to go anywhere but our couches to be entertained.

None of these developments are bad in and of themselves. They can make life more convenient, efficient and enjoyable, but they also eliminate much physical activity that used to be routine.

The nature of much modern work also presents obstacles to getting enough physical activity. According to The New York Times, “One out of two Americans had a job that was physically active” in 1960; now, only one in five do. Many people’s job responsibilities don’t require them to get up and move, let alone work up a sweat. “For most people with indoor office jobs or doing lot of driving,” explains Neville Owen, a professor at the University of Queensland, Australia, “work is really the biggest chunk of sedentary time during the day.” 

Moving toward solutions

Sedentary living is a serious problem, but everyone can take immediate steps — literally — toward solving it. “The goal is to avoid prolonged sitting and to add any kind of physical activity to your day,” says Edward Phillips, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

Even small changes can start making a difference:

• Tap your foot while sitting.
• Walk around while talking on the phone.
• Park your car at a reasonable distance away from your destination and walk there. When riding the bus, get off a stop early and walk.
• Skip elevators whenever possible and use the stairs.
• If sitting in an office, stand and stretch frequently. Get up and walk to your colleague’s cubicle to ask questions — who needs more email in the inbox, anyway?
• Ride a stationary bike while you watch TV. (My father-in-law does this when watching football. He’s logged a lot of miles on Sunday afternoons!)

Employers, too, can encourage employees to sit less. Some buy standing desks or workstations to encourage movement; in 2014, sales of such desks rose by 50 percent. Other businesses schedule regular activity breaks for staff; this change not only promotes healthy living and raises morale but also cuts down on health-care costs.

Physically active faith and practice

The medical finding that the human body is meant for motion matches a theological conviction that God created us to be actively engaged in life.

God placed the first human in Eden “to farm it and to take care of it” (Genesis 2:15) — physical activity was part of God’s plan. When God came among us as one of us in Jesus, God lived an active life. Jesus was a Messiah on the move, walking from town to town to preach and to enact his message in miracles that restored many people to physically active lives. Jesus’ followers did likewise, moving out from Jerusalem to become his witnesses “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And though we will rest in the life to come, we won’t be sedentary: We will live in a city, the New Jerusalem, where, as theologian Shirley Guthrie writes, “there will always be new things to do, new tasks to perform in service of the living God.”

Many congregations make physical activity part of their ministries. Earlier this year, for example, Health Fitness Revolution magazine recognized Christ United Methodist Church (Plano, Texas) as one of its “Top 20 Fittest Churches.” The church offers basketball goals, an indoor track and a weight room, as well as programs in yoga, karate, tap dance, body sculpting and more. Pastor Don Underwood says, “It helps convey the clear message that being a follower of Jesus includes our physical lives as well as [our] spiritual [lives].”

An old spiritual entitled “Oh, Won’t You Sit Down?” includes this exchange: “Oh, won’t you sit down? Lord, I can’t sit down, ’cause I just got to heaven, gonna look around.” For our own spiritual and physical health, we shouldn’t wait until heaven to say we can’t sit down! Christ calls us today to be actively on the move with him.

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