Mature adults have compelling reasons for making active lifestyle habits an integral part of their weekly routine. Mental acuity and physical vitality are both treasured assets in senior decades. On a weekly basis, adults make decisions to invest in those assets or to ignore them. The stakes could not be higher. Rates of chronic disease, including diabetes and Alzheimer’s, are rising at alarming rates. Over the last thirty years, rates of diabetes have tripled and deaths from neurological disease have exploded 66% for men and a frightening 92% for women. Cures are elusive and, in the case of Alzheimer’s, treatment regimens are largely ineffective. The answer? Prevention - via active lifestyle habits. Tom Frieden, M.D., Director of the Center for Disease Control exclaims, “We know that … being active is the closest thing we have to a wonder drug.”
In our sample of data from 1600 residents of the San Francisco Bay Area, a region widely known for its dedication to fitness, more than half of all respondents were less than satisfied with their current fitness status. Over 90% of that group indicated that they were motivated to improve their physical condition yet more than half of them did not exercise on a regular basis. More than a quarter of the U.S. population does not exercise regularly and in several states in the Deep South, that figure blows beyond one third of populace. Researchers conclude that somewhere between 35 – 50% of chronic disease cases can be avoided or significantly delayed by regular physical activity and healthy diets. The potential for improving quality of life in senior decades for millions of people commands the attention of everyone in or around the health professions.
The decision to be active or to maintain sedentary habits sits squarely in the realm of psychology. People make choices to move or conversely, not to move. Several factors influence this life choice. Culture has a dominant force. We live in a world dominated by motorized everything. Most all errands involve getting in the car and when we’re not driving to the store, Americans are often watching something on tv. American cultural forces boost risk factors for health.
Diabetes rates are well known to be sensitive to social class. People on the lower end of the class scale are more likely to contract diabetes than are the ‘well to do.’ However, as depicted in the graph to the right above, even lower class residents of the United Kingdom (blue bar) contract diabetes at rates below upper class Americans. There is something peculiar about our culture that predisposes people in the U.S. to this scourge.
Graph courtesy of Harvard University School of Public Health.
Cultural dangers extend well beyond our love of cars. Entertainment almost always comes in the form of flat screens, be they 48” on the wall or 14” on a laptop. For both, the viewer maintains the same position – on their behind. Then there’s the issue of what we eat. Paleo-anthropologists estimate that our Stone Age ancestors consumed between 4 to 8 pounds of sugar in their diet annually. Residents of “advanced” western cultures, like the U.S., now consume more than 100 lbs of sugar annually. Agri-business giants pack super market shelves with processed foods with seductive flavors but compromised nutrition.
“Humans crave high-energy foods, like fats and carbohydrates, because such food was hard to come by in the Stone Age, but can now be consumed in great abundance to the detriment of the body. Meanwhile, humans typically opt out of energy-intensive habits, such as walking to destinations, because people also inherited brains hardwired to want to save energy ." “Caveman Instincts” LiveScience
We literally suffer from a cognitive disability related to our capacity to see long term implications of our immediate behavior. Many people think “I didn’t do much of anything in the way of exercise over the past month and still feel pretty much the same as I did a while ago. No harm, no foul … no big deal!” Our seeming inability to anticipate the long term consequences of actions has had devastating consequences. We fish the oceans until fish stocks teeter on the verge of extinction. We pump groundwater to keep lawns green and crops watered with little or no regard for reserves 200 years hence. Politicians refuse to take conservation measures that might dent near term economic performance and ignore longer term implications of carbon pollution and climate change. The same cognitive disability impacts our health. Neurogenesis – the growth of new neurons and the health of existing neurons – can be greatly enhanced by consistent exercise habits, but many dismiss the risk of neurological deterioration until symptoms appear when it is typically too late to change the course of the disease. The health of our cardio-vascular system follows a parallel path.
The opportunity to improve health with active lifestyle habits that repel chronic disease can be seized. In spite of cultural trends that tilt the odds against us, individuals make choices every day to integrate activities and exercise into their life or not. The payoff is concrete and tangible. The risks of inaction are frightening.