Australia’s new sedentary behaviour guidelines could be doing more harm than good. The ultimate goal of these guidelines is for everyone to ‘move more and sit less’, regardless of age, gender, race or circumstance.
As a mother of twins, I was told by doctors within weeks of giving birth that I should be physically active and get my ‘abs’ back to normal. To add to this directive, I was at home being bombarded by media messages and government policies telling me that I should be moving more and sitting less. This experience made me realise that the everyday realities of my life at that point in time were not being considered.
All I wanted was to sit and rest, but all I did was keep moving.
I was lacking sleep, lacking confidence as a mother, struggling to breastfeed my two crying babies and in pain from childbirth. Yet, I was feeling guilty about not being physically active enough during the day. I was actually blaming myself for not taking responsibility for my health. All I wanted was to sit and rest, but all I did was keep moving. Whether I realised it or not, I was buying into the cultural ideal that we should ‘move more and sit less’. Physical activity is accepted as being good for us and good for society and I was feeling bad about not doing my bit. So, is this ideal really in our best interest?
As an academic, my work critiques this popular assumption that everyone should remain physically active throughout his or her life. Public officials often see physical activity participation as a cost-effective, unanimously beneficial and universally appropriate solution to ageing and disease management, among other things. However, what my research over the past decade has shown is that if we continue to ignore the effects of social inequality, personal circumstances and individuality in health outcomes, especially among women, older people, the poor and ethic minorities, there is potential for negative consequences.
For example, it could widen the gap between those who have the means, ability and desire to take some responsibility for their health and those who do not, especially if this uncritical thinking and practice leads to cuts in welfare support for those in need, as in the United States and the United Kingdom.
The fact is that not everyone enjoys exercise, sport or keeping physically active.
It could lead to greater social disconnect among highly active people and inactive people. For instance, in some cases, highly active people explicitly criticise others for ‘being lazy’ or ‘not getting off the couch’ without any recognition of the complexities of a person’s life or the society in which we live.
It could also create a heightened sense of guilt and self-blame among those who do have the means and access to physical activity, but do not have the desire or interest in it. The fact is that not everyone enjoys exercise, sport or keeping physically active.
Certain types of people, particularly white, middle-class, and those who are already active, are attracted to sport, running, cycling, gyms, or the latest ‘boot camp’ in their area. Why should physical activity be positioned as an imperative for all? Playing a musical instrument is good for one’s health, just as exercise and physical activity can be, but the former is not pushed on everyone.
Since the 1980s , there has been no significant increase in adult participation rates in sport and physical activities in the Australian population, despite increases in disease.
The reality is that regular sport and physical activity participation is not accessible to everyone (and never will be) for many reasons, which vary according to gender, age, race, socio-economic status or circumstance. Since the fitness boom in the 1980s and the ongoing promotion of physical activity for all, there has been no significant increase in adult participation rates in sport and physical activities in the Australian population, despite increases in disease. If anything, participation rates are quite high, with approximately 65% of adults participating in some form of sport or physical activity. This finding raises the question, why are we still blaming inactivity (or sedentary behaviour) for disease?