Knowledge Work Kills

Use it or lose it...

Use it or lose it...

I’ve often wondered about the impact of the change in how we work, from manual and active labor to knowledge work at our desks, with respect to our health. After all, while our life expectancies are significantly longer than even 50 years ago, we suffer more knowledge-age ills, including back problems and neck and shoulder injuries. What I didn’t realize, however, was how frightening the reality was.

Let’s look at the rise of the boob tube. While the term “couch potato” has been the subject of much derision for several decades, the combined effect of long-term television watching with our propensity towards knowledge work has become a matter of great concern, and not just to me. Simply put, the more time we spend sitting in front of a computer screen, be it a laptop or desktop, the shorter our lives will be.

In an article in the October 2012 issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine entitled “Television viewing time and reduced life expectancy: a life table analysis,” J. Lennert Veerman of the Centre for Burden of Disease and Cost-Effectiveness, School of Population Health, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, and his colleagues examined data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Diabetes, Obesity, and Lifestyle Study, the latter an ongoing project studying the health habits of almost 12,000 Australian adults.

Along with questions about general health, disease status, exercise regimens, smoking, diet and so on, the survey asked respondents how many hours per day in the previous week they had spent sitting in front of the television.This was significant in that researchers found it easier to get respondents to quantify the length of time they spent watching television (and sitting) than simply sitting by itself.

What the researchers found was striking, to say the least. Compared to subjects who watch no television at all, those who watch an average of six hours per day have a life expectancy of 4.8 years less. Each hour viewed reduces that person’s life expectancy by 21.8 minutes.

The numbers here are staggering – indeed, the researchers compared the loss of life from TV viewing to that associated with major chronic disease risk factors including physical inactivity and obesity.

I’ve become all too aware of my own sedentary knowledge-worker lifestyle and have made several major changes that get me out from behind the computer screen (the TV was less of a concern as I am happy to report that my television viewing habits are minimal, very happy indeed). In the past six weeks I’ve flown over 25,000 miles (40,000 kilometers) and, while I wasn’t exactly flapping my arms in order to keep the aircraft aloft, the combination of walking through foreign cities and airports (and I find I am more apt to walk around the city when I am not home) as well as the convenience of a hotel gym and pool (while I seemingly ignore the gym and pool on home turf) make it easy to remain active and keep fit. I’ve also just started doing Crossfit, a community-based training program that combines several types of cardiovascular and resistance trainings into a benchmarked sport.

Just as with cigarette smoking, a habit I never acquired a taste for, it’s never too late to stop smoking and it’s never too late to stop sitting in front of the computer or TV. Now that you’ve finished this column, why not go out for a bike ride or walk and become active?

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

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