Do You Really Need to Exercise?

“Work out twice a week to stay in shape. Exercise 30 minutes a day. Avoid alcohol to prevent cancer. Drink alcohol to decrease your risk of heart disease. Do you ever feel overwhelmed with good advice? One day the headlines say one thing, and the next week something totally different. . . . Why can’t scientists agree? Why is coffee dangerous one week and harmless the next?”​Barbara A. Brehm, Ed.D., professor of exercise and sport studies.

HEALTH experts often disagree on matters of nutrition and fitness. Many people get confused by the glut of information on the dos and don’ts of well-being. However, when it comes to the need for moderate physical activity, there seems to be universal agreement among scientists​—if you want better health, you must exercise regularly!

The lack of enough physical activity has become a serious problem in modern times, especially in industrialized lands. For generations many people in such countries engaged in hard manual labor, whether farming, hunting, or building. Granted, the high level of physical exertion needed just to subsist was often a strain on our ancestors, even shortening their life span. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “in ancient Greece and Rome the average life expectancy was about 28 years.” In contrast, by the end of the 20th century, the life expectancy in developed countries was about 74 years. Why the change?

Technology​—A Blessing or a Curse?

People today enjoy relatively better health and a longer life span than did those who lived centuries ago. This is partly because of the technological revolution. Modern inventions have changed the way we do things, and many laborious jobs have become more bearable. The medical profession has made great strides in the fight against disease, improving the health of most. There is an irony in this, however.

While modern technology has been conducive to better health, with the passing of time, it has also contributed to a sedentary life-style in large segments of the population. In their recently published report entitled International Cardiovascular Disease Statistics, the American Heart Association explains that “economic transition, urbanization, industrialization and globalization bring about lifestyle changes that promote heart disease.” The report mentions “physical inactivity and unhealthy diet” among the principal risk factors.

In many lands just 50 years ago, a hardworking man would sweat behind the horse and plow, cycle to the village to go to the bank, and do home repairs in the evening.  The life-style of his grandchildren, however, is quite different. The modern worker may sit in front of a computer most of the day, drive his car virtually everywhere he needs to go, and spend his evening in front of the TV.

According to one study, Swedish lumberjacks, who in the past burned up to 7,000 calories a day felling trees and moving logs, now watch sophisticated machines do most of the hard work. Many of the world’s roads were once built and maintained by men with picks and shovels. But now, even in developing lands, bulldozers and other heavy equipment are doing the digging and shoveling.

In some parts of China, the motorized scooter is steadily replacing the bicycle as the preferred form of transportation. In the United States, where 25 percent of all trips are less than one mile long, up to 75 percent of these short trips are made in automobiles.

Modern technology has also produced a generation of sedentary children. One study observed that as video games become “more enjoyable and more realistic, children are . . . spending longer times on their game consoles.” Similar conclusions have been reached regarding TV viewing and other forms of sedentary entertainment for children.

The Risks of a Sedentary Life-Style

The drastic reduction in physical exertion has led to many physical, mental, and emotional health problems. For instance, a health agency in Britain recently reported: “Inactive children are at risk of poorer self-esteem, greater anxiety and higher stress levels. These children are also more likely to smoke and use drugs than active children. Inactive employees have more days off work than active employees. In later life, inactive people lose the basic strength and flexibility for daily activities. As a result, many lose their independence and have poorer mental health.”

Cora Craig, president of the Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute, explains that “Canadians are far less physically active at work than they used to be . . . Overall, activity is down.” The Globe and Mail newspaper of Canada reports: “About 48 per cent of Canadians are overweight, including 15 per cent who are obese.” The paper adds  that in Canada, 59 percent of adults are sedentary. Dr. Matti Uusitupa, from the University of Kuopio, in Finland, warns that “the incidence of type 2 diabetes is rapidly increasing worldwide due to the increasing occurrence of obesity and sedentary lifestyle.”

In Hong Kong a recent study suggested that among people 35 years of age and older, about 20 percent of all deaths could be related to a lack of physical activity. The study, led by Professor Tai-Hing Lam of the University of Hong Kong and published in 2004 by Annals of Epidemiology, concluded that the “risk from physical inactivity exceeds that due to tobacco smoking” in the Hong Kong Chinese population. Researchers predict that the rest of China “will witness a similarly large mortality burden.”

Is this concern justified? Could physical inactivity really harm our health, even more than tobacco smoking? It is widely accepted that compared with active people, inactive people tend to have higher blood pressure, a higher risk of strokes and heart attacks, a higher risk of developing certain types of cancers, a higher risk of osteoporosis, and a higher tendency to become obese. *

The Wall Street Journal reports: “On every continent of the globe, even including regions where malnutrition is rife, the number of people who are either overweight or obese is rising at an alarming clip. The major culprit: the same combination of high-calorie diets and sedentary behavior that fuels the epidemic of fat in the U.S.” Dr. Stephan Rössner,  a professor of health behavior at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, agrees and went so far as to claim: “There is no country in the world where obesity is not increasing.”

A Global Problem

Clearly, a program of moderate physical activity is vital to our well-being. Yet, despite the well-publicized risks of physical inactivity, a large segment of the world’s population remain virtually inactive. The World Heart Federation believes that between 60 and 85 percent of the world’s population “is not physically active enough to gain health benefits, especially among girls and women.” This organization claims that “nearly two thirds of children are also insufficiently active for their health.” In the United States, about 40 percent of adults are sedentary, and about half the youths between the ages of 12 and 21 do not engage in regular vigorous activities.

A study that examined the prevalence of sedentary life-styles in 15 European countries found that the percentages of inactive people ranged from 43 percent in Sweden to 87 percent in Portugal. In São Paulo, Brazil, about 70 percent of the population is sedentary. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that the “data gathered on health surveys from around the world is remarkably consistent.” It should not surprise us, then, that an estimated two million people die every year from causes related to physical inactivity.

Health experts worldwide view this trend as alarming. In response, government agencies around the world have started various programs designed to educate the public on the benefits of moderate physical activity. By the year 2010, Australia, Japan, and the United States hope to achieve a 10 percent increase in the level of physical activity among their citizens. Scotland aims to have 50 percent of its adult population engaging in regular physical activity by the year 2020. A report from WHO explains that “other countries that highlighted their national programmes in physical activity were Mexico, Brazil, Jamaica, New Zealand, Finland, the Russian Federation, Morocco, Vietnam, South Africa, and Slovenia.”

Notwithstanding the efforts of governments and health organizations, the ultimate responsibility of caring for one’s health falls squarely on each one of us. Ask yourself, ‘Am I active enough? Am I getting enough exercise? If not, what can I do to break free from my sedentary life-style?’ The following article will show you how to increase your level of physical activity.


^ par. 16 Physical inactivity can dramatically increase the risk of certain life-threatening conditions. For instance, according to the American Heart Association, physical inactivity “doubles the risk of developing heart disease and increases the risk of hypertension by 30 percent. It also double[s] the risk of dying from CVD [cardiovascular disease] and stroke.”

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The Expense of Inactivity

Many governments and health organizations are seriously concerned over the financial strain that physical inactivity has placed on society.

Australia - In this country the yearly health-care costs linked to physical inactivity amount to about $377 million.

Canada - According to the World Heart Federation, during just one year, Canada spent more than $2 billion on health-care costs “attributable to physical inactivity.”

United States - During the year 2000, the United States spent the astronomical figure of $76 billion on medical costs directly associated with physical inactivity.

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Children Need Physical Activity

Recent studies have found that an increasing number of children do not engage in physical activity on a regular basis. Inactivity is more prevalent among girls than among boys. It appears that as children grow up, their levels of physical activity decline. The following are among the many ways children may benefit from regular physical activity:

● Development of strong bones and muscles as well as healthy joints

● Prevention of overweight and obesity

● Prevention or delay of problems with high blood pressure

● Prevention of Type 2 diabetes mellitus

● Increase in self-esteem and prevention of anxiety and stress

● Development of an active life-style that may prevent a sedentary adulthood

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Better Health for the Elderly

It has been said that the older you are, the more you stand to benefit from a moderate exercise program. Still, many older people hesitate to engage in regular physical activities for fear of getting hurt or sick. Granted, older ones do well to consult their doctor before they begin a program of strenuous activity. Experts, however, believe that physical activity can dramatically enhance the quality of life of older adults. The following are some areas in which older ones are likely to improve with regular exercise:

● Mental alertness

● Balance and flexibility

● Emotional health

● Speed of recuperation from illness or injury

● Gastrointestinal and liver functions

● Metabolism

● Immune system

● Bone density

● Energy level