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What's stopping American workers from being more active?

Our workplaces aren't organized to promote good fitness habits and that needs to change.
by Larry Alton /
ImagE: Colleagues working together on a tablet in the office
To avoid sitting all day, try to organize more "standing meetings" — or better yet, a "walking meeting." Getty Images
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Americans are facing a health epidemic rooted in lifestyle and behavioral choices, rather than the spread of infectious disease. More than two-thirds of American adults are considered to be overweight and obese, a byproduct of our overabundance and overindulgence of food as well as our sedentary lifestyle. While obesity is important and pressing problem, and a precursor to serious conditions like diabetes and heart disease, sedentary lifestyle is also dangerous. In fact, studies show that sedentary lifestyles — those linked to chronic periods of sitting for work and little extra exercise — are precursors to illness and death as well.

Being sedentary is the root of many of these problems. But why is that the case? Why aren’t American workers more active?

Why We're Just Not Moving Enough

There’s no simple answer to this question, since each individual will have different motivations for being sedentary, but there are some common motivations that often work together to inspire less activity:

  • A lack of organization. Part of the problem is that we aren’t organized in a way that allows us to preserve fitness habits. We could create calendars and use time management apps to make more time for exercise, but instead, we end up getting lost in a sea of tasks, responsibilities and paperwork. As a result, we don’t make time for physical fitness.
  • No cultural emphasis on fitness. We also don’t live in a culture that emphasizes physical fitness; in fact, we prioritize jobs that allow us to sit and expend minimal energy while de-emphasizing jobs that require manual work. Cultural pressures force us to favor sedentary habits over energy-intensive habits, which makes it easier to fall into these unhealthy patterns. Without a group of peers, supervisors and family members committing to physical activity and energetic lifestyles, it’s harder for us to convince ourselves that it’s something we need in our lives as well.
  • Restrictive offices. Despite recent advancements in telecommuting, most of us still have to go to the office every day. We’re stuck at a prefabricated desk and chair that only allow certain positions, and we’re in a building where there isn’t much room for movement — let alone intensive exercise. As a result, we’re somewhat trapped at our cubicles and desks, unable to conveniently stand or move around on a regular basis. We have to go out of our way to avoid sitting, and that makes anything other than a sedentary lifestyle inconvenient.
  • Drive-based commutes. Highways and suburbs have an interesting and mutually reinforcing relationship. As more people move away from the inner cities, there’s more demand for big highways enabling (and forcing) drive-based commutes. As those highways become established and improved, it’s more tempting to live away from the city. As a result, fewer people bike or walk to work, instantly cutting out half an hour to an hour of exercise from the everyday American’s life. Those drive-based commutes make us lazier, and less willing to travel on foot to our destinations.
  • Few “easy” ways to get exercise. If you want to join a gym, you’ll have to pay a monthly membership. If you want to work out at home, you’ll need to invest in special equipment. It’s hard to wake up early, and it’s tiring to exercise after a long day of work. Exercise in our culture simply isn’t convenient, and that means fewer people are interested in it.

Individual vs. Collective Solutions

For the individual, addressing these problems is relatively easy (if you have the personal motivation). You can get a bike for a few hundred dollars, which will pay for itself when you begin using it instead of a personal vehicle or public transportation. You can stand at your desk and stretch out every hour or two while you’re at work. You can spend 20 minutes a day exercising in whatever way is most convenient for you. Anything you do will have a positive impact on your health and wellness.

Unfortunately, the problem extends far beyond the individual, and cultural changes are far more difficult to institute. The only way to inspire cultural changes to favor health and fitness is to band together as individuals, or preach from a position of leadership, to motivate others to follow suit. Until this cultural shift happens, it’s up to individuals to make the shift — and that requires breaking the mold of our sedentary culture.

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