My initial reaction to a new report indicating that the increasingly sedentary workplace plays a role in growing obesity rates was, “No duh.” But further examination leads me to believe this story has more value than merely stating the obvious. In truth, many people don’t think much about the impact of moving around as part of your daily life on your overall health. We tend to focus more on what we’re eating and making time for high-impact exercise, but the nickel-and-dime energy consumption concerns don’t really get much focus in terms of public policy or private decision-making.
Of course, the problem may not be a lack of knowledge. This is far from the first study that lays the blame for increasing diseases from overnutrition on the sedentary lifestyle of Americans, but no matter how much information comes out, there seems to be no real reaction from those who have the power to make the changes. Tara Parker-Pope at the Well Blog optimistically writes, “The findings also put pressure on employers to step up workplace heath initiatives and pay more attention to physical activity at work.” Unfortunately, the modern American workplace is one of increasing indifference to the needs of employees coupled with a hostility to change that makes these sorts of health initiatives impossible. If you work in an office that allows you to have a standing desk that you install yourself, you’re probably doing better than 95 percent of office workers. Most places, the sheer amount of slack-jawed goggling you get for being the weirdo will put anyone off taking measures to improve their health.
We’re also not in a society geared toward long-term thinking. If people stayed at the same job until they retired, it might be easier to convince employers to value their health, if only to keep insurance premiums lower. But most of our economy is geared toward the short term. Which means that in order for the workplace culture to change, real pressure beyond guilt trips will have to be applied, either through unionizing or legislation, or a combination of both. We need to view obesity as a long-term workplace safety concern and apply the same rigor that has, in the past, been used to make workplaces safer in the short term. If we can regulate the chemical exposure or safety hazards of workplaces, why not the de facto requirement that people sit still on their asses for hours at a time?