Ever see an overweight environmentalist?

When I was in grad school, I made my way over to the environmental studies building a couple of times so that I could recruit potential participants. Each time I was there, I noticed something strange. Everyone there was in the “normal” category for body mass index. Moreover, all the participants I screened from that program were ineligible because they were already physically active. It made me wonder, is there something about being an environmentalist, or an environmentally friendly person, that makes one healthier?

As far as I can tell, the answer is YES. I should mention that this article is completely opinion based (and somewhat observational). I’m sure there are overweight enviro-friendly people; I’ve just never met one! So what is it about being green that makes one healthy? My guess is two things; active transportation and local fresh food.

Active transportation means that instead of sitting in a pollution spewing car, enviro-friendly people opt to walk or cycle to work or school. If the distance is too great, they are more likely to take public transit, which also requires a bit of walking (to and from the bus-stop). There are several studies to indicate that those who engage in active transportation are more likely to be in the normal body mass index category. There is also emerging evidence that these individuals are overall healthier.

Eating locally grown food is known to reduce one’s carbon footprint, but it may also mean committing to eating fewer processed foods. Eating produce, breads and meat from local farms means more home cooking and consumption of fewer foods with added sugar and preservatives. Thus by eating local foods, one might be committing to a healthier diet as well as a greener planet.

Surely there are other behaviours that contribute to this “phenomenon”. But as a health and exercise scientist, these two are the most obvious ones to me. What is also obvious from writing this article is that a commitment to a green lifestyle might also be an important step in committing to a HALF!

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What determines whether a person becomes an exerciser?

You often hear people say they don’t have time or they don’t have access to the appropriate facilities to start an exercise program. Yet, there are many people who are regularly active despite such barriers. So, what allows one person to overcome such barriers while another cannot? The answer is simple yet quite complex. The fact of the matter is, research has identified hundreds of factors that influence regular physical activity.

So the real question then becomes, which of these identified factors truly matters? Which ones are important when trying to make a lifestyle change and trying to engage in regular physical activity? A recent review entitled “Correlates of physical activity: why are some people physically active and others not?” published in the highly reputable journal The Lancet (link) set out to answer these questions. The authors undertook a massive task and reviewed hundreds of articles to determine which correlates/determinants of physical activity show the strongest association with physical activity among children/adolescents and adults. They identified 5 main areas of determinants: demographical, psychological/cognitive, behavioural, social and environmental. Among children/adolescents biological sex (male), ethnic origin (white), self-efficacy (confidence to exercise), family support, perceived behavioural control (whether one thinks they can be active) and environmental  variables such as walkability, traffic speed, access to recreation facilities were all strong determinants of physical activity. For adults health status (i.e. whether one has a chronic disease/limitation or not) and self-efficacy were the strongest determinants of physical activity. Others included personal history of physical activity, intention to exercise and environmental factors such as transportation environment (safety of crossing, side-walks etc), neighbourhood aesthetics (eg. greenery) and access to recreational facilities. The authors also looked at determinants specifically among low-middle income countries and noted that demographic variables such as biological sex, age and socioeconomic status were the strongest determinants. Further, cultural differences in the value of physical activity and social support were noted as being important. Finally, the authors pointed out that genetics MAY play a role in determining whether one is active or not because of the enjoyment or pleasure that physical activity brings for some versus the pain and exertion it brings to others.

It seems then that those who are regular exercisers have the right combination of factors in place. But, the real question is, what can we do for those who do not? Or what can those who do not have the right combination of factors do for themselves? First, as the authors suggest, this data can inform new policies that help overcome barriers. For example, governments can invest in creation of cycling lanes or work to improve neighbourhood sidewalks. Second, individuals who have many barriers but are interested in becoming active can seek out social support to assist them with overcoming the barriers. For example, they can find groups in their geographical area that are interested in similar activities through social media outlets or local facilities. Finally, it is important to find the right type of physical activity/exercise i.e. the type that brings you pleasure. Enjoyment is a great predictor of whether one maintains an active lifestyle, so be sure to search for the right activity/activities, and you’ll be sure to stick with your new HALF!

TAKE HOME MESSAGE: This article was meant to inform people in the field of health promotion and policy development on what can be done to increase physical activity levels among the global population. But we can all learn a little from it. If you work with or have children/adolescents, it seems working on self-efficacy and providing family support will help greatly with their HALF. If you are an adult who hasn’t quite made the habit, or know of someone who needs to create their HALF, then motivate them to become active regardless of their health status and help them boost their self-confidence. Some of the strongest determinants of a HALF are belief in ones’ ability that they can do it. So get out there and tell everyone you know that they can do it, there is no barrier that can’t be overcome when you truly believe in a HALF!

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Why people in physically active jobs still need to exercise…

As someone who sits in front of a laptop all day, I often wish for a more “active” job. In fact, sedentary jobs are considered to be a significant contributor to the obesity epidemic and many related health problems in western countries. In an attempt to counter this, many tools such as treadmill desks and walking meetings have been implemented in the workplace. It seems then, if you had an active job, like one in construction let’s say, that you might be able to counter this problem. Turns out, it isn’t that simple.

While an active job certainly does lead to an increase in energy expenditure (the number of calories burned), it doesn’t necessarily lead to an increase in fitness or health. In a recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal, British Journal of Sports Medicine, Holtermann and colleagues set to investigate whether having an active job had the same benefit as being physically active in your spare time. They used long-term absence from work as a health indicator. Using a large Danish database, they categorized people into 4 groups based on the activity they did at work and 4 groups based on the activity they did in their spare time. Taking into consideration a variety of factors such as smoking, chronic disease presence, emotional demands and education, the researchers found that more active jobs were associated with MORE long-term absence from work while more physical activity in spare time was associated with LESS long-term absence from work. This was true for both males and females.

Surprised? It is contrary to what we would expect. As an exercise scientist I always say that “any activity is good activity”. It seems I should re-adjust this to “any leisure-time activity is good activity”!

The findings of the study are actually quite simple to explain. A physically active job is usually very specific. For example, if I were a delivery person, I would be doing the same lifting type of activity all day. This repetitive nature of active jobs often leads to injury. This injury of course can become severe over time and thus lead to absence from work. Interestingly though, if you were to go on a fitness program that strengthened your muscles, particularly of the back and legs, you may not end up having getting these injuries. On the same note, if you did a complete exercise program i.e. cardio and weight training and stretching, then you are less likely to sustain other injuries at work and will reduce your risk of chronic conditions. In other words, while those few repetitive tasks you do at work are burning calories, they aren’t doing much for your overall health or fitness levels.

TAKE HOME MESSAGE: Whether you work in an active job or a sedentary job, it is important to incorporate a balanced exercise program into your life. This can prevent you from sustaining injuries in the workplace and of course it will decrease your risk of chronic disease and improve your quality of life. Remember, any leisure-time activity is good activity, so don’t get too bogged down by what to do!

And of course, don’t forget, you have control of your HALF!!

 

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