Modern Lives are Weird!
For the first time in history, children have a shorter lifespan than adults
Posted May 23, 2016
I am writing this article whilst sitting on a train whilst sipping a cup of coffee. Coincidentally, I am enjoying two of my fondest pleasures, as I am both a train geek and a coffee snob. And, of course, I am typing away on my beloved Apple Mac computer. So make that three pleasures! Three relatively modern inventions that either aid or enrich my life. I am traveling from my home in Berlin, Germany for a family event in Kent, England, and work and pet commitments mean that I need to make this journey a day trip. It is a long day, starting at 04:00 and ending, I expect, with me collapsing into my bed sometime after midnight. And while international travel has become commonplace in the developed world, it is still an extraordinary achievement: over 1,000 kms in one day. Without the help of planes, trains and automobiles, and with the assistance of a lot more physical fitness than I currently possess, the journey would take at least a month. According to the ‘Moves’ app on my trusty iPhone, this journey now requires little more than 8,000 steps, and this is far above that which is ordinarily required on an average day to make my way around the modern world.
Modern science and technology can be wonderful things. But it has a dark side, too.
We tend to assume that the life which is familiar to us is the normal one. As the version of living that is characteristic of Western Europe and North America continues to spread around the globe, in one sense, it is normal. The radical changes to work, schooling and the organization of communities that was kick-started by the Industrial Revolution during the Eighteenth Century, and given renewed impetus by the technological revolution in the second half of the Twentieth Century, have imposed a homogeneity that is unprecedented. So, through the lenses of the lifetimes of most readers of this article our lives really are normal. However, viewed from the perspective of human history, the lives of those of us in Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic societies are WEIRD (to use the memorable acronym of Joseph Henrich).
The sport and exercise sciences, following medicine, have tended to focus on the molecular, physiological and psychological mechanisms underlying health and disease. The logic of this is obvious, and it aligns the sciences concerned with physical activity with the dominant science of Western medicine and its preoccupation with physical illness and disease.
There are obvious benefits of the approach, but it also has its limitations, since it ignores the question of why these mechanisms have been shared as they have. We are, like all living things, products of generations of evolution though natural selection, and evolution usually works in geological, not human-historical timescales. Our bodies and brains evolved 200,000 years or 8,000 generations ago, and the environment to which those bodies and brains adapted is radically different from the world in which we find ourselves today. It has been estimated that 95% of human biology, and presumably many characteristic human behaviors were naturally selected during the Late-Paleolithic era. For a great deal of this period, humans lived as ‘hunter-gatherers’, using skillfully crafted stone tools (hence the nickname ‘the Stone Age’).
In this difficult environment, physical activity was inseparable from survival, as it was only by movement that early humans were able to forage and hunt for food. According to some estimates, men hunted for up to four days per week, often covering huge distances in a single day, and women worked at gathering food every other day. Therefore, human bodies probably became adapted to habitual physical activity, including endurance and peak effort, alternating with rest.
This is why the WEIRD acronym is so apt. Viewed from the perspective of human evolutionary history, the lives of those of us in the so-called modern world are ‘weird’, as they barely resemble the environment in which we are supposed to operate. Evolutionary theorists something call this the ‘Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness’. An organism’s niche is very important for understanding the ways in which it evolved, and what it had to do to survive and reproduce in a particular environment over evolutionary time, such as find food, find mates, avoid predators, combat pathogens, and so on.
Physical activity was a necessary part of human being’s environment of evolutionary adaptedness, most directly because it was required to hunt and gather food. In the unpredictable and largely hostile places where early humans had to live, the success of finding food was never guaranteed. In fact, it was quite common for our ancestors to undergo experience cycles of feast (when food was abundant) and famine (when food was scare, due to drought, unsuccessful hunting, or illness). In this context, physical activity was just as much a core requirement for survival as food, water and sex. Humans were designed to move.
As we have seen recent cultural changes have engineered physical activity out of the daily lives of humans. Very few humans now need to hunt, travel large distances on foot, or physically gather food from the local environment for survival. For example, most individuals no longer have to use manual labor to procure food or shelter. This creates a potential tension or mismatch between the convenience of modern living and bodies and brains that are still adapted for the Paleolithic era. Modern humans are “Stone-agers in the fast lane”. Since physical activity is a necessary feature of effective human survival, it is likely that the harmful consequences of sedentary lifestyles go far beyond physical illness, and could extend to almost any aspect of functioning, including cognition, psychological processes and social interactions.
The mismatch between our evolved bodies and brains and the modern world is the ultimate cause of the risks associated with the current “pandemic of physical inactivity”: inactivity is a serious problem because human bodies have evolved not to be sedentary. Indeed, they require regular activity in order to function effectively and healthily. Numerous national and international studies have painted a disturbing picture of the current state of inactivity and inactivity-related conditions among both adults and children.
The physical health consequences of sedentary lifestyles are now well-known. Globally, the major cause of death and disability are non-communicable diseases like obesity, heart disease and stroke, cancer, chronic respiratory disease, and diabetes. Each of these is “disease of civilization”; a pathological condition caused by our rapidly changing physical, social and cultural landscapes, and our bodies’ inability to keep up. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of mortality worldwide, with risk factors including obesity, high blood pressure, blood lipids, and lipoproteins. Each of these conditions can result in reduced life expectancy, while costs for treating them continue to increase. More concerning, perhaps, is that obesity, high blood pressure, blood lipids and lipoproteins all track from childhood through to adulthood. So, the roots of adult ill health and early death lie in childhood.
Obesity is, of course, an issue of increasing concern for many people. A recent meta-analysis of all published survey data worldwide tried to estimate the changing prevalence of overweight and obesity since 1980, using data from 183 countries. The results show that the greatest gain in overweight and obesity worldwide happened between 1992 and 2002, mainly in people aged between 20 and 40 years. Men have a higher prevalence of overweight and obesity than do women in developed countries, whereas the opposite is true in developing countries; in developing countries, prevalence is about 30% lower for men and 15% lower for women than in developed countries, but both sets of figures are rising. Naturally, measures vary between countries, which suggests some scope for intervention and change, and weight gain seems to have been decelerating somewhat over the past 8 years in developed countries. However, no countries have seen a significant decrease in obesity levels in the past 33 years. Approximately 32% of men and 34% of women in the US are obese, compared with 21% in both sexes in Western Europe, and this prevalence is increasing.
For many people, evidence from children and young people is particularly concerning. Aside from any natural anxiety for the well-being of the young, the issue of non-communicable diseases during childhood is of great public health importance, since many of these conditions have been found to track from childhood through to adulthood, which strongly suggests that the roots of adult ill health and early death lie in childhood. This suggestion is corroborated by the finding that between 1 in 3 and 1 in 5 children in the Western world is overweight or obese (depending on their country and gender). It is also supported by reports that one-third of children in the United States have at least one risk factor for Metabolic Syndrome, which is the coexistence of multiple risk factors including hyperinsulinaemia, glucose intolerance, hypertension, decreased levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and elevated triglycerides.
Figures for children’s sedentariness is often seen as the greatest cause for concern, as childhood is usually understood to be the period of greatest opportunities for activity and the high-point of activity levels. Again, the findings vary considerably, but those from many developed countries, in particular, are concerning. A study from the USA found 25 % of children (6-15 years of age) were moderately active for the recommended minimum amounts of 60 minutes a day, five days a week, which means that three-quarters of children in this sample failed to meet that standard. Another group of researchers reported that 20% of US children are obese, and 17.8 % overweight. A Canadian study reported that estimated 9% of boys and 4% of girls accumulated 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on at least 6 days a week, and that Canadian children and youth spend 8.6 hours per day - 62% of their waking hours - in sedentary pursuits.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the annual worldwide tally to be 35 million people per year dying of diseases associated with physical inactivity, which is double the number dying from all combined infectious diseases, like HIV/AIDS and malaria. Aside from the human cost, there is a huge financial loss: in 2005 alone, the estimated losses in national income from heart disease, stroke and diabetes were $18 billion in China, $11 billion in the Russian Federation, $9 billion in India, and $3 billion in Brazil. Such figures, startling as they undoubtedly are, are almost certainly overly conservative. Most data on the costs of inactivity focus solely on physical ill-health. But this is just the most visible expression of a much more complex predicament. It is impossible, with existing figures, to speak accurately about the real cost of inactivity. However, adding just the best understood costs, such as inhibited peer socialization during childhood and absence from from work, and we can guess the amount will increase still further.
Physical inactivity has become the new normal, and there is a serious price to be paid for this change. For the first time in recorded history, children have a shorter lifespan than their parents due to non-communicable diseases. WEIRD environments squeeze physical activity from children’s lives, and replace it with cars and computers and TVs.
What can we do to reverse these changes? I will discuss some of the research into the effective strategies for promoting physical activity in childhood and for the rest of life. But for now, let me just offer a few simple evidence-based recommendations:
- Variety is the spice of life – evidence suggests that children benefit from a wide range of movement experiences;
- Fun is fundamental – children’s early movement experiences should be characterized by fun and enjoyment if we wish to create a love of physical activity strong enough to become an everyday part of their lives.
- Children are not mini-adults – everything we know about children’s development teaches us that children’s mental, physical and social development are nothing much like those of adults. So treating them like mini-adults – such as in sports – is a strategy doomed to failure, drop-out and unhappiness;
- The Play Way – Play is children’s natural mechanism for learning and developing. If we wish to inspire children to be active – and to remain active – the experiences we offer them need to be playful, intrinsically enjoyable and led by the children themselves.
Finding out more about …
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