Thursday, July 12, 2012

Non-Sedentary Economics

This week a study appeared on sedentary behavior and life expectancy.  The conclusions are that if sitting could be limited to less than 3 hours per day and watching television could be limited to less than 2 hours per day the life expectancy would increase.  The results were based on a meta-analysis, i.e, a study combining results from other studies, of five studies where people were asked about their behaviors like sitting and watching TV and then followed for some amount of time with mortality as an outcome.

A few thoughts on this issue.  First, the studies were not all US studies.  Is there reason to suspect that the effects of a sedentary lifestyle may not be the same everywhere?  Perhaps.  It may depend on the entire range of activities an individual undertakes.

Second, it is not clear whether the studies tested for any interaction terms.  The results have been interpreted as meaning that even people who exercise regularly are at risk if they also sit a lot or watch TV a lot.  The effects seem to be independent.  But what about a person who exercises regularly (perhaps even pretty hard) and also sits a lot.  Take myself.  Does running 25-45 miles per week (there is a lof of variation in my schedule depending on the temperatures, travel, vacation, work intensity, etc.) while sitting easily 8 hours a day at work, make a difference.  Perhaps the running has an independent effect (I sure hope it does). But do the two interact in more complex ways that are difficult to capture?  And how does sitting and working on a computer compare with watching TV? Or is watching different because one's body is more completely relaxed?  And what about those who multi-task rather than just "vegging out" in front of the TV?

Regardless of the study's limitations, (and the authors are up front about a number of others and no study is perfect), what if we take the results at face value?  First, is there a government role?  Is there a market failure for activity?  Is there a market failure with respect to TV watching?  Or are these just choices that people make that they should be allowed to make?  And what if people with jobs that are largely desk jobs want to change their behaviors?  what options do they have?  Is there any way to facilitate these individuals being productive while not sitting at work?  Is there suddenly going to be more of a market for the standing work desks?  And, if so, whose responsibility will it be to buy them?  The employer?  The employee?  Is there a place for government intervention here?

In the end, for me personally, there are a lot of tradeoffs and a lot of possible behaviors.  No easy answers. I'll just take my chances that my combination of activities, job responsibilities, food choices, and sleep quantities is right for me.  I suppose that is all most economists suggest--that people understand their choices, understand the implications of their choices, and are left as free as possible to make them.   


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  2. As for the question is there a government role...I suggest that there can be government actions that help citizens make healthier choices. For example, developing walkable communities, increasing/improving bike paths even designing commercial buildings in a way that encourages movement can help shift current patterns. Governments can help make these a priority--but first they need to recognize that "health policy" includes transportation policy, land use policy, Ag policy, environmental policy etc. etc. We need to see all of these policies through a health lens to effect behavioral change.

  3. Studies have shown that very little exercise is needed to improve health & longevity but rather more to improve athletic performance although the quantitative details of each are uncertain. Both aerobic & strength training are of value. I would recommend "The First 20 Minutes" by Gretchen Reynolds, a recent & very readable book which documents what studies have shown about exercise & healthy. I strongly agree with both Professor Frick & Melanie. Insurance companies could also play a role in encouraging wellness programs.

  4. I own a health food store in Arizona. I can tell you from first hand experience that all of the urban planning, government intervention will not make up for the lack of personal responsibility. My customers who want to exercise and eat right do so. The majority of my customers want the latest magic weight loss pill as seen on Dr. Oz. Is this a lack of understanding on how the body works? Or is it human nature to do the easy thing until something breaks down and then try to fix the problem? I tend to think more people fall into the latter category than the first.


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