A recurrent theme of this blog is how American cultural values relative to work and the workplace affect and limit health promoting behaviors — particularly vigorous exercise and adequate sleep time. For most Americans, a tradeoff has been made between these activities. Work and the often stressful time suck of commuting to and from the workplace win out. Even for those who by virtue of their positions such as physicians and public health officials who are cognizant of the need to set a good example of healthy behaviors.
Case in point: Ron Chapman, a physician and director of the California Department of Public Health. This profile of Chapman appearing earlier this week in The Bay Citizen tells of Chapman’s struggle to find enough time for a consistent, meaningful exercise routine. The article contains a link to a survey Chapman’s department conducted in 2009 and points to the findings at Table 78 indicating one third of survey respondents indicated they don’t have time to be more physically active.
If we are going to bend the relentless rise of the heath care cost curve that’s driving America’s health insurance rates, I believe we as a society need to rethink how we work in order to free up more time during the day for exercise. Do we really need to be in a sedentary position in a designated office space 8 hours a day (plus sitting another hour or two commuting) to be productive? And most importantly, is the tradeoff in terms of potential adverse health effects really worth it?
I believe the answer is no. To improve our overall health status, we should change how we work, shifting and staggering work times and breaking up the pace of work. There is no natural law that holds information work can only be accomplished between the hours of 8 and 5 in an office building. Information and knowledge work can be performed at any time and place we can relax and concentrate, particularly with Internet access becoming nearly ubiquitous. In fact, for this type of work, much productive thinking occurs during exercise when the brain is stimulated by activity, hormones and oxygen. Getting adequate sleep also keeps the mind sharp, creative and productive.
Dr. Chapman, how you resolve your struggle has implications for all of us. Use your position of influence as the top health official of the nation’s most populous state to raise some of the questions here and spark reassessment and positive change in how we define work that can improve and preserve the health of all Americans.
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