Rethink Leisure

Sitting is the new smoking.

Have you seen those headlines?  Sitting and smoking don't seem to have a lot in common, until you discover that they're both linked to a lot of health threats.

Here's where they aren't alike:  Smoking is much less widespread.  A growing number of cities, states, and countries have enacted laws that ban smoking in all work and public places, including restaurants and bars.  The Centers for Disease control reports that the number of smokers in the U.S. has fallen to a record low.

But sitting is far more acceptable.  In fact, we all do more of it than ever.  Most of us have jobs that require little or no physical exertion.  We might do a little standing, lifting, and walking around, but mostly we sit.

Sitting might kill us.

When we go home, we sit some more, watching hours and hours of TV, streaming services, or You Tube, and scrolling on various social media.

Leisure activities are supposed to promote health and creativity, yet the thing that Americans do most often with their free time is not cooking or dancing or hiking or playing an instrument.  Americans sit and watch screens.  I have the same bad habit.

All this sitting contributes to poor health and fitness.  As we spend more time sitting, we're more likely to experience:

  • Obesity.  Research has found that adults who spend more time sitting have a higher body mass index and waist size.  Not only are we not using that time to move more and burn more calories, but we tend to eat when we're sitting.  And when we're idly watching TV, we're more likely to eat junk food than any healthier alternatives.
  • Disease.  Studies show that for each additional hour spent watching TV, we have a 26% higher chance of developing metabolic syndrome, which can lead to diabetes and heart disease.  Researchers also found a link between hours spent sitting and several types of cancer.

Did you catch that last part?  Even if you exercise every day, sitting around too much is harmful to your health.  Spending time at the gym doesn't erase the effects of a mostly sedentary life.

What's in a name?

Isn't it odd that we deem the term "sitting room" quaint?  Today we have living rooms, right?  Or do we?  While we refer to the space in our homes where we spend most of our leisure time as the "living room," the truth is that it has become a sitting-down room.

We definitely don't want to be typical Americans in this area, do we?  How can we turn our living rooms, family rooms, dens, man caves, and she sheds from places where we sit to places where we relax healthfully?

5 ways to keep your living room from making you sick

1.  Spend less time in the room.

Decide that one night a week will involve a family outing.  Visit a neighborhood park, go on a bike ride, go bowling or to the roller rink.  You and your partner could join a choir, go to the gym, or simply take a long evening walk.

2.  Control snacking.

Eating after dinner is especially bad if you want to control your weight.  It's much better to eat a healthy, filling meal than it is to snack later.  And many of us eat when we're bored, or because it's a habit to nosh on fatty chips, cookies, or candy when focused on a screen.  If you think you're hungry, drink some water or tea, since we sometimes mistake thirst for hunger.  If you need more, try one of these options:

  • an apple, or a piece of whatever fruit is in season
  • celery with a little nut butter
  • carrot sticks with some hummus
  • a serving of low-fat cottage cheese
  • a hard boiled egg
  • air-popped popcorn

3.  Buy some old workout videos.

Vow that for every hour you're in front of a screen, you'll spend 10 minutes exercising.  You don't even need the video if you take a fast walk around the block or do jumping jacks, squat kicks, leg raises, push ups, or even some house cleaning or decluttering during every commercial break.  But really, who's more fun to work out with than Jane Fonda?

4.  Unplug.

One night a week, leave the TV, computer, phones, and tablets off.  Use your living room to play charades, Simon Says (funny when adults play too!), Twister, or balloon volleyball.  Build a blanket fort.  Or expand your living space by playing tag in and around the house.  Let your body and brain take a break from electronic stimulation.

5.  Do more without labor-saving devices.

Some home chores can provide the benefits of leisure.  They can be relaxing and meditative, a chance for social bonding, or even a mini workout. 

Research shows that as we spend more time in front of screens, we spend less time actively doing household chores.  Now's the time to declutter some labor-saving devices!

  • Get rid of the Roomba and push a vacuum cleaner.  
  • Donate the bread machine and bring back kneading.  
  • Hand wash your dishes and your car.  (Make it more fun with a partner.)  
  • Sell your riding mower and buy a human-powered push mower.  
  • Instead of a leaf blower, use a rake.  
  • Instead of hiring the neighbor kid to shovel snow or pull weeds, do it yourself (and involve the whole family).

If leisure activities are supposed to encourage good health, less stress, and more creativity, make sure your leisure time is actually accomplishing that.  Decide to do more than sit!

Updated February 2023


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