100 Years Ago, Exercise Was Blended Into Daily Life

More than half of Americans are couch potatoes — people who routinely get less than 30 minutes a day of exercise. An amazing fact of modern life is that we don't have to move around to do anything. Researchers say 100 years ago, people got five times more exercise every day, just in the course of daily living.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

So that's what it's like to work on this program. You come into work in the middle of the night and put on a report about how you really should be asleep. Or maybe doing more exercise. Half of all Americans are officially couch potatoes. To qualify, you have to do less than 30 minutes of exercise per day.

That's according to Adrian Bauman of the University of Sydney in Australia. Australians, by the way, aren't much better. And he says changing the way we live is going to take more than just individual efforts. NPR's Joanne Silberner reports.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Adrian Bauman has made the study of physical inactivity his life's mission. He's done research on it and he's analyzed other people's work, and one thing about modern life is clear.

Professor ADRIAN BAUMAN (Public Health and Epidemiology, University of Sydney): We don't expend energy doing anything. We've actually engineered regular daily physical activity out of our lives.

SILBERNER: He says a lot of things stop us from burning calories.

Prof. BAUMAN: We come to work in almost any vocation and we sit. And we sit for eight hours and then we get up and we sit in the motorcar, you know, in automobile and we go home. When we arrive at home, we sit in front of the television. We have frozen TV dinners. We have pre-prepared, prepackaged food that doesn't require energy to collect it. We don't hunt, cook it. It's mostly just put in microwaves and simple systems.

SILBERNER: We don't even chop vegetables anymore. Bauman says that's very different from the way life used to be. He cites research by a colleague who studied people living and working in a historical Australian village, recreating life in the 19th century.

Prof. BAUMAN: Their energy expenditures were three to five times the amount that people spend today. And that was just a regular person going to and from work. It wasn't a lumberjack or someone who was working on the land or someone who had a huge heavily physical job.

SILBERNER: And, of course, three to five times more energy expenditure burns a lot more calories. Today advocates of what's termed smart growth are building communities where people at least get out of their cars. There's a project under construction at the site of the old Stapleton Airport in Denver. Seventy-five hundred people have houses and apartments there already.

Alisha Brown is the director of healthy living for the nonprofit that's creating the community.

Ms. ALISHA BROWN (Stapleton Foundation): We have sidewalks. We have bike lanes in the community. It's very geared towards people being able to walk around the community. They can walk to the grocery store. They can ride their bikes on the trails. There are parks all throughout the community. And it encourages people to get out of their cars.

SILBERNER: In this community, a soccer mom is on her feet. Brown says she might get her kids out of the house in the morning and walk them to the park.

Ms. BROWN: While they're at the park, she can walk right across the street and have coffee. We often see moms and their children walking and playing and exercising. There are more strollers in the Stapleton neighborhood than cars.

SILBERNER: Studies of communities like Stapleton have confirmed that people are walking more, and researchers are studying people in these communities, comparing them to people in nearby neighborhoods to see who's healthier. What they find out will matter, says Adrian Bauman. A lot of people think that getting healthier is all about dealing with the obesity epidemic. Others think it's all about getting people to move around more. Bauman says it's both.

Prof. BAUMAN: The exercise science community would say physical inactivity is two-thirds of the story. The nutritionists would say diet's two-thirds of the story. As a public health person, I'll say it's probably 50/50.

SILBERNER: He cites studies from the World Health Organization and other institutions that show that inactivity takes a real toll on health.

Prof. BAUMAN: Physical inactivity is a major risk factor for death and for illness. It contributes to about one-sixth of heart disease, cardiovascular disease, about the same for diabetes, about 12 percent for falls in the elderly, and about a tenth of all breast cancer and colon cancer are attributable to being physically inactive.

SILBERNER: Bauman says getting people up and moving is more than about just motivating individuals. He says it's going to take a coordinated effort, like the one that's driven down smoking rates. And he says the payoff will be on a similar scale.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And that's Your Health for this Monday morning.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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