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Sedentarism: A Communicable “Disease”?

Sedentarism: A Communicable “Disease”?

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The act of being sedentary, or sedentarism, is a hard thing to quantify.  Many studies have attempted to give sedentarism specific parameters; is it less than 30 minutes a day, less 3-5 times a week, or does caloric expenditure play a bigger role?  You don’t need to have a widely accepted definition to understand the basic principles of an idea, or to know that there are few things in this world that can spread as rapidly and virulently as an idea with the right circumstances.


Behavior is Communicable, Like Disease


We’re going to deal a lot in the realm of hypothetical and I aim to provoke some thought with this one.  The CDC (Center for Disease Control) refers to a communicable disease as “…an illness caused by an infectious agent or its toxins that occurs through the direct or indirect transmission of the infectious agent or its products from an infected individual or via an animal, vector or the inanimate environment to a susceptible animal or human host”.


Now, story telling time! (I’m sure this is anything but fiction in most of your lives)


Let’s take person A, we’ll call him Norm (sorry to any “Norm” reading this) and in this scenario, he’ll play the “infectious agent”.  Norm has a loud, boisterous personality. He’s a trendsetter, confident, and a high-ranking manager at a big time software company. In short, Norm leads, people follow.


It just so happens, Norm is obese.


Norm doesn’t take the stairs to the second-floor corner office he occupies.


He scoffs at anyone wanting the company to pay for a stand-up desk, as it does not “maximize the bottom line”.


Everyone knows a “Norm”.


Here comes an incoming group of new employees, eager and ready to work hard for the success of the company. Most of them still relatively young and impressionable, and more importantly in this scenario, ready to %100 buy into what their superior is selling them. It just so happens that the superior is Norm, our “infectious agent”, and these new employees are unfortunately the “susceptible host”. This subgroup within the company would be considered by many to be an accurate representation of the United States population as a whole.


A few were really in shape, biked to work, got up every hour at work and walked around the office.


Some were sedentary, both at home and at work, and didn’t engage in much activity at all.


But a stark majority were only occasionally active, playing a little golf on the weekends.


The important portion of this new group of employees is the majority, the occasionally active cohort, with the metaphorically weakened immune system, easily influenced (infected) by the strong personalities (infectious agents).


Norm, the manager

After spending a few weeks at the workplace, there is a paradigm shift.  One by one, Norm influences his subordinates, whether by shaming one for “eating that boring salad”, or jokingly ridiculing another for wanting to join an after-work walking club in front of several other employees. These susceptible hosts fall prey to the insecurity ridden superior and slip into a behavior pattern much like that of Norm. The few physically active remain strong albeit discouraged by the behavioral change of a majority of their peers.  The original, relatively small group of employees that were completely sedentary, were slowly joined by the folks on the fence. A few months after this influx of new workers, there was a new majority; one populated by the “infected”.  To think that this whole situation could have easily gone the other way if only the superior was praising healthy choices, leading by example, and fostering an environment where exercise and movement were the accepted behaviors.



Sedentarism is a human behavior, and a powerful predictor of human behavior is social or societal norms.  It’s science, we are more likely to conform to the culture of a majority.  Whether it be with friends, family, or in this case, coworkers, we crave to belong to something.


Be a Leader for Your Friends


All it takes is one decision to invite some of your closest friends to a group exercise class or to participate in a weekly run through the park. One by one, you can either help shift your group towards health or away from it.  Each friend influences the other more than any one friend would care to admit. You are the company you keep, and if your present company adheres to a behavioral pattern that undermines your long term well-being, then I think it’s time to reevaluate. Take advantage of opportunities to disseminate good behaviors throughout your friend group. Next time you’re out to eat with guys/gals, what if you ordered first, and shied away from the extra cocktail or basket of fries? I’d be willing to bet that more times than not, a trickle down will occur, and the group will consume fewer calories on average. Refer to the article in the American Journal of Public Health, quoted below.


“Identifying moderate activities performed by active people can provide preventative goals for their sedentary peers.”


Be a Leader for Your Family


I will admit, this is easier said than done, I’m sure. I don’t have kids, but I someday hope to have some as I start a family with my beautiful future wife. But this doesn’t necessarily apply to just your children. I can recall several instances where the strong will of my partner helped steer me clear of making a bad food decision or motivated me to go for a walk after a long day at work. We help each other out, and I really think it’s a team effort. Some nights you might be the strong one, and other nights maybe your partner will have to put the team on his or her back. Because your children and their healthy (or potentially unhealthy) habit formation at a young age have a bigger impact overall than whether or not your partner indulges occasionally on a date night, we’re going to focus on the kiddos.


Imagine you come home from work, and all you want to do is kick your feet up and binge-watch some Netflix to unwind. Keep in mind you have a few sets of eyes watching your every move, and if you decide to lounge on the couch for three hours after dinner (which you presumably made good food choices too), how likely is it that your kids will follow suit? I’m not saying you have to be perfect with it, just saying that like in a friend group or work setting, social norms are powerful. In that moment you’re not just influencing what they do, but their children will do.  Who knows, maybe your children influence the decisions and behaviors of their friends, for good!


Conforming for Goodness Sake


I know my communicable disease metaphor is a stretch, but I do this to make it feel more urgent. Noone really likes to admit how influenced they are by other people, but everyone is in some way conforming to some social norm. Social norms are powerful, and when it comes to creating a culture, whether it be positive or negative, your greatest influencers are critical to how particular ideas (or behaviors) can spread.


Our software company manager, Norm, is short for Normal.  The name choice for this scenario wasn’t by chance.


Don’t let Norms be the norm.


Yours in Wellness,


Prevention over Treatment