Have we become too clever for our own good?

Recommendations for physical activity have significantly increased over the past 20-30 years. Why, as a society, do we continue to experience increased rates of chronic disease despite all this exercise?

You may recall in the 1980s the Heart Foundation recommendation for physical activity was for 30 minutes of exercise, 3 or 4 days per week. Today we are advised to aim for 10,000 steps per day with at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise most days of the week, and ideally a session of vigorous exercise once per week. Why has this recommendation increased so much?

Back in the 80s, before the advent of smart phones, electronic filing and sit-stand desks, we actually experienced significantly more incidental movement. Working in an office we would collect paperwork from our mail centre, walk to a colleague’s desk to discuss our work, when the work was completed we would file the notes and then take it to the filing compactus. If you worked in a labour job there was a great deal more ‘labour’ such as carrying of equipment to site, using hand tools and operating heavy power tools rather than machines. Those of us old enough would remember the years before ‘wheelie bins’ in Brisbane when men would carry our rubbish bins over one shoulder. How far we have come… or have we?

The pendulum may have swung too far. Technological advances have significantly reduced, and in some cases eliminated, our need to move to get work done. There is ample empirical evidence to show that sedentary behaviour is contributing to our increased incidence of chronic disease, namely Type II diabetes, heart disease and stroke. What’s interesting in the latest research is that much of our sedentary hours are accumulated at work.

So how can we pull back from the technological advances that promote sedentary office work? How can we get the balance right so that workers are not exposed to hazardous manual tasks but still experience sufficient movement?

The answer lies in human-centred design of work. Creating healthy work environments and work processes that take account of the human being who needs to operate the system. When engineers, scientists and software designers create their products and processes their focus is on the output. The human operator is often the last consideration. Herein lies the role of the ergonomist – to use science and empirical evidence to match human beings, their capabilities and limitations, to their work to promote productivity and health. So when designing work think about how you can incorporate an inherent need to move – not just advice to go for a walk every 30-60 minutes.