Workouts at Work

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Discussions about physical activity and exercise, both for people with diabetes and more generally, tend to focus on finding the time to exercise and making it more enjoyable. This is certainly true here at Diabetes Self-Management, where we’ve published articles like “Getting Started Exercising” and “Making Exercise More Fun.” But according to a recent study, leisure time might not be the best focus when it comes to increasing levels of physical activity.

The study, which was presented at the Obesity Society’s Annual Scientific Meeting in San Antonio last month (and is not yet published), examined physical activity levels over a number of years in the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Brazil, and India. According to an article on the study at MedPage Today, unlike many surveys used to gauge activity levels in a population sample, the ones used in this study asked respondents what kinds of physical activity they did in a variety of situations, including at work, doing household chores, and for transportation, in addition to time set aside for exercise. The results show that in all countries, but especially in China, overall physical activity has dropped and is projected to continue to fall. In all countries, most of this decline was the result of less job-related physical activity, with less household- and transportation-related activity as well. Leisure-time physical activity actually rose, but not enough to make up for the decline in the other areas.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the United States was found to have the lowest overall level of average physical activity, at 160 metabolic equivalent (MET)-hours per week. This measurement makes most sense when making comparisons: For instance, the average level of physical activity in the United States was 235 MET-hours in 1965. In the United Kingdom, average physical activity has dropped from 216 MET-hours per week in 1960 to 173 in 2005. And in China, the level has dropped dramatically from 399 MET-hours in 1991 to 213 in 2009.

Of course, it may be a good thing for overall health and safety that less back-breaking manual labor is being performed worldwide. But the drop in transportation- and chore-related activity hint at the growth of a sedentary culture in all of these countries, aided by technology — even for people without jobs involving high levels of manual labor. After all, workers in office buildings once had to walk around to relay messages. And even for “manual” jobs, such as those in shipping and distribution, machines have reduced the physical intensity of many jobs.

Have you experienced or witnessed a drop in on-the-job physical activity throughout your life? Do you think this trend is inevitable, or are there ways to incorporate more movement into sedentary jobs? Should companies be encouraged, or required, to provide equipment to encourage movement, such as treadmill-equipped work stations? Would you rather be physically active at work, commuting, doing household chores, or through leisure-time exercise? Leave a comment below! And check out these tips from the Joslin Diabetes Center on getting more physical activity.

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