Sad to say, but true: the modern way of life is centered around sedentary activity.  We take motorized transport most places we go, and we go less places.  We sit at our computers for hours on end; we often relax in front of the TV to unwind in the evenings; and the current generation of children is crazier about video games than ever before.  Clearly, this lack of activity contributes to the obesity epidemic by way of decreasing energy output overall.  However, the story goes much deeper than that: it turns out that certain types of sedentary activities have other important effects on the Energy In (food intake) side of the equation!

As reviewed by my University of Copenhagen colleagues and led by Dr Chaput, there is evidence to suggest complex effects of the following sedentary activities on food intake and obesity:

1.  TV Viewing.  Excess TV time is a problem that plagues our society, with nearly 60% of American adults watching TV for more than 2 hours per day.  Not only is this a sedentary activity, but studies suggest that as much as 25% of the day’s calorie total is consumed in front of the screen, and TV watching also results in a preference for high calorie, tasty foods.  People who are more distractable may be particularly susceptible to the weight-increasing effects of TV time (it’s the classic: open the bag of chips, start snacking as you sit down to a movie, and before you know it, you’re reaching into an empty bag and are surprised that they are gone!). Not surprisingly, distractibility has been associated with overweight and obesity.

2.  Video Games.  Although many adults enjoy video games, perhaps the most important impact is amongst our children, who are estimated to spend 2 hours gaming on average per day.  Not only are most video games sedentary, but they have also been shown to result in an increase in food intake later in the day.  This may be due to hormones released during the mental stress or excitement of the game, advertisements for high calorie food seen during online gaming, or other factors.  As for the higher energy games like the Wii, it is not yet known where the energy balance pans out.  Even decreasing a child’s sedentary video game time by an hour a day could have an important impact, as each hour per day spent at gaming doubles the risk of obesity.

3.  Cognitive Activity.  As technology progresses, we as a society are spending more and more time engaged in sedentary brain-heavy activity, and less time doing physical work.  Computer work is the primary offender in this area.  Mental work is fueled by glucose, which is in fairly short supply in the body (versus muscle activity which can also be fueled by fat).  The increased use of glucose by the brain may alter feeding patterns towards consumption of more carbohydrate and/or more calories.  Mental work can also be stressful, causing the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, which is also associated with increased food intake.

4.  Music.  Believe it or not, the tunes you have pumping from your iPod or stereo may be impacting your weight as well.  Listening to music while eating results in longer meals and a higher calorie consumption; faster and louder music increases food consumption as well.  Unfortunately, soft, comforting music isn’t the answer either, as this has been shown to result in an increase in liquid calorie consumption (particularly alcohol!).

So, how do we combat all of these factors in our struggles against obesity?  Well, the answer is clearly not to stop working at the computer, stop listening to music, or to refrain from enjoying the occasional movie or TV program to unwind after a hard day.  The first step is to think about the above points, and think about how they could perhaps be modified within your own life in a positive way.  For example, consider:

  • standing while talking on the phone at work – even better, try standing on a balance board (provided this is safe for you to do – it may not be if you suffer medical problems such as diabetic neuropathy or other issues that could impact your balance)
  • cutting TV time in half
  • investing in a desk that mechanically raises and lowers, such that you can stand at your desk
  • encourage your child to engage in a physical activity rather than play video games

As for music….?  Not sure what to say about this one.  Should we turn off the music while we’re eating?  Or perhaps it’s enough to just keep it in mind.  I’d be interested to know what my readers have experienced or may suggest?

Dr Sue Pedersen © 2011

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