We’ve honed our minds into highly buffed machines with washboard abs, but let our bodies go to seed. We feel busier than ever and yet we’ve never been so sedentary.
A survey released this month by the Bureau of Statistics found six out of 10 adults do not meet the recommended target of half an hour of moderate exercise on most days of the week. Women were even less likely than men to meet the guidelines.
So, is it really true we don’t have enough time to exercise? Official time use figures, also from the bureau, suggest not.
Yes, we are working longer, an average of 14 minutes extra a day in 2006 compared with 1992. But we are also sleeping longer, 12 mins extra, eating and drinking for longer, 25 minutes extra, and watching more television, up a whopping 27 minutes. Eat, sleep, work: it’s the modern mantra.
But it comes at a cost. We’re socialising less, 67 minutes less a day, doing less sport and outdoor activity, 12 minutes less, and have 18 minutes less unspecified “free time” a day.
With two-thirds of Australian adults now overweight, the search is on to find a way to get them to live less in their heads, and more in their bodies.
So why did we stop moving?
Professor Paul O’Brien, the emeritus director of the Centre for Obesity Research and Education at Monash University, says new technologies enabled us to indulge our human instinct for laziness.
“It’s human nature. We look for the easiest way and if the easiest way is sitting rather than standing, standing rather than walking, being inside rather than outside, using a car rather than walking to somewhere, we’re going to do it. If you want to, you can actually get through most of the day hardly moving at all.”
A childhood obesity expert at the University of Sydney, Louise Hardy, agrees. “We actually do live in a toxic environment,” she says. A lack of public transport means more people driving, rather than walking to transport. Studies have shown cities built on a grid are more likely to encourage walking, rather than the sprawling cul-de-sacs of urban Australia. Bigger houses, often with dedicated “entertainment rooms”, have swallowed backyards in which to play.
How to turn things around?
The co-founder of the executive coaching firm Clarity Now, Kevin Orrman-Rossiter, says that just becoming more mindful of how we are spending our time can help.
“We have become creatures of habit. We work, come home, watch television and go to bed.”
We need to realise how we spend our time is a choice, according to Orrman-Rossiter. “We have all got to work to pay bills and meet all those necessities, but you can step back out of it and ask: ‘what am I going to do? Will I flop in front of the television and become an observer of life or do I participate and go for a walk instead?”‘
Orrman-Rossiter says television is a particularly “insidious” device. “It’s an easy thing to do. We flick it on to watch the news but then it grabs your attention and before you know it, two hours have gone by.
“But I challenge anybody who can seriously look you in the face and say my real priority is watching TV.”
Meanwhile, new communication technology has also provided more opportunities for seemingly productive procrastination, checking email, Facebook, Twitter etc. Orrman-Rossiter advises clients to set technology-free parts of the day and switch off the mobile phone.
Setting aside free time, even if it’s just to stare at the wall, is important, too. “It takes mindful effort to think what are the really important things in my life, and what do I want to be doing with my life, and then put small steps in place to do it.”
When it comes to exercise, one such step could be laying out exercise clothes at night ready to wear for exercise in the morning.
Establishing a routine is crucial, according to Peita Mages, a mother of two children under two who left a “100 hour a week” corporate job to have children and run an online candle and kitchenware business.
While doing less paid work, Mages says she has never been busier, but still makes time for exercise. “When I don’t exercise it’s not good for me. I need it.” Mages goes running twice a week with her baby in a pram. “There’s absolutely no reason why you wouldn’t want to put your baby in a pram and go for a walk.”
But experts are divided on whether responsibility for solving the obesity crisis ultimately lies with individuals or government.
Hardy says government could help by designing more active living spaces, with public transport, parks and running tracks. “We have to rethink our environment. Our environment does encourage over eating and under movement.”
With obesity rates highest in low-income groups, governments can’t just wash their hands of the problem. “You can’t just say to these people well, stop eating that food, when the quality of the fresh food is probably not wonderful.”
Others are more sceptical. O’Brien says while there is a lot the government could do, like taxing highly sugary foods or banning advertising, ultimately they won’t because of the powerful commercial interests at stake and short political cycles.
So it falls to individuals to make decisions to change their lives.
“I’m getting a sense that as individuals we are recognising that we have to look after our levels of fitness and activity, but as a community, we have got overwhelming forces encouraging us not to. We have got people who want to sell us labour-saving devices and people who want to sell us food,” O’Brien says.
“Ultimately we’re eating 200 to 300 calories more than we need and at the same time we have reduced our activity levels by 10 to 20 per cent.
“I often have my patients say, well I just don’t have the time.”
O’Brien suggests patients get up an hour earlier to exercise. “The last few hours of your sleep is pretty low-yield stuff. Your best sleep is in the first two to three hours.”