If you’ve ever had a chance to browse your parents’ or grandparents’ high school yearbooks from the 1950s, you’ve probably noticed a couple of things. First, everyone looks like they’re 30 years old. Second, almost no one is overweight.
While clothing choices and hairstyles likely explain the first observation, what explains the second? Why have obesity rates increased
214 percent since the 1950s? Why is it that one in 50 people in the United States is now 100 pounds or more overweight when in the 1950s, these cases weren’t even documented because they were so rare?
Could it be we haven’t discovered the right diet yet? This is possible. But that doesn’t explain why Amish communities have one of the lowest obesity rates in the United States at 0 percent for men and 9 percent for women despite the fact they eat breads, butter, jam, meat, gravy, sausage and pies to the tune of 4,000 calories a day. One key finding, reported in a study published by the American College of Sports Medicine, is the Amish walk an average of between 14,196 steps for women and 18,428 steps for men a day compared to the average American, who walks 4,912 steps for women and 5,340 steps for men. That amounts to a difference of more than 500 calories a day, which could account for modern Americans gaining more weight over their lifetimes.
This doesn’t mean American diets aren’t also a factor. In addition to the sugar and trans fats in our modern diets, we’re opting for more convenient, pre-packaged foods that reduce such everyday movements as growing, harvesting, preparing, chopping, pounding, whipping and serving up our own home grown and home prepared foods. This means we’re burning far fewer calories accessing our food than ever before.
Physical activity is further curtailed in modern life as a result of our cities supporting driving rather than walking or riding a bike, television binge watching and social media addictions absorbing our free time and sedentary jobs replacing more physically demanding work.
Modern life doesn’t have to continue to destroy our health, though. We can make changes to our daily routines to foster more movement. Employers in particular can make a huge difference in their workplaces — and, by extension, the community — through education, job re-engineering and the creation of new social norms.
Education — Most people don’t understand lack of physical activity is a significant health risk on par with smoking. By holding seminars, posting interesting infographics in break rooms, distributing reputable articles and offering engaging seminars, employers can create awareness about this problem, which is the first step to changing behavior.
Job re-engineering — With a little creativity, traditionally sedentary jobs can incorporate more movement. Adjustable workstations that accommodate standing encourage more movement. Cordless or mobile phones can be issued to allow people to make phone calls while pacing or walking around the building. Walk-and-talks can replace some meetings, and frequent stretch breaks can be introduced in others. Even good old-fashioned recess could be introduced in the workplace.
New social norms — Establishing new norms that favor movement over sitting influence behavior in subtle, yet powerful, ways. That said, deviating from current social norms can make even the most confident person feel like an awkward teen-ager. One solution is to gather people from all levels of the organization to determine which new norms they’ll commit to introducing and championing long enough for them to take root across the organization. Examples include such activities as taking the stairs, parking further away from the building, walking anywhere that’s located less than a mile away from the office, performing standing exercises at the copier, setting an hourly timer to get up and move, scheduling after-work bike rides instead of happy hour gatherings and spending team-building time over hikes instead of lunch.
Now, rather than comparing your team members to the people whose photos are found in those 1950s yearbooks, consider how impactful it might be to compare a company group photo taken now to one taken two years from now. With a few creative educational, job re-engineering and social tweaks to cultivate a healthier workforce, that future photo might just depict an incredible health transformation that changes the trajectory of your employees’ lives and your organization for years to come.