health

'Stop telling me to fix every problem with exercise'

Image: Thinkstock

Dr Rylee Dionigi is a senior lecturer at Charles Sturt University, Bathurst.

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?

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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.

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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?

When inactivity is pointed to as a key cause for ill-health or disease,  the blame for these problems falls on the individual.  In this context, we are expected (or made to feel obligated) to take responsibility for our health by making certain leisure and lifestyle choices.

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Consequently, a moral viewpoint is constructed around what is considered good and bad practices in relation to our health. One outcome of this current push for everyone to be physically active is that highly active people are visible and idealised, while sedentary people are victimised, medically treated, or ignored.

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We cannot prevent disease or ageing, no matter how active we are

We’re told that ‘getting active’ will fix such a wide variety of social ills.  For example, parents are encouraged to enrol their child in a physical activity program as early as 18 months so that their little one does not become obese. Teenagers who are getting into trouble with the law or at school are told that sport will fix their social alienation. Women are told that if they join a fitness club it will make them lose weight and look younger. Older people are encouraged to keep active and buy associated products to prevent ageing.

The Australian Government’s recently released physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines are another example of shifting the blame of the burden of disease to the individual – in this case, women, the old, the poor, the young, the Indigenous, and visible minorities. We cannot prevent disease or ageing, no matter how active we are, because there are so many variables that affect our health. Government decisions, corporations, the environment, social norms, customs, diet and lifestyle, to name a few, all play a role in the health of individuals. Also, there are many ways, other than physical activity, to experience holistic health benefits.

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Sedentary behaviour has become medicalised, moralised and positioned as an epidemic of our times, and getting more people moving is presented as the solution. The guidelines are based on fear tactics, and in this context the pleasures associated with passive leisure, such as watching television or a movie, reading, contemplating, using the computer, relaxing with friends, creating art, playing music, lying on the beach, or singing are either demonised or absent. Passive leisure can be social, cognitive, emotional and spiritual in nature. It contributes to your identity and well-being. It can be where you find meaning in your life. In other words, passive leisure is good for your health!

We must value leisure in all its countless forms.

As a society we must value all forms of leisure, not only the one’s prescribed to us in physical activity guidelines, television commercials or social media. Rather than measure how our leisure practices meet (or fail to meet) current policy definitions of physical activity we must open up a dialogue about multiple and inclusive ways of living our lives. We must value leisure in all its countless forms.

I like lying on the trampoline with my son and daughter beside me as we look for recognisable shapes in the clouds. I feel connected to nature, my children and my imagination. Think about how much you gain, mentally, emotionally, cognitively and spiritually from your sedentary practices and share them on social media. It’s time to stop the demonisation of passivity!

Do you think we’re being pressured to exercise too much? What sort of sedentary activities do you find particularly rewarding?

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