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COVID-19: The Age of Sedentary Lifestyles

In March 2021, 21st Century University (US21) conducted a study that successfully demonstrated the unforeseen health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Observatory of Social and Business Trends specializes in looking for trends regarding sedentary lifestyles and physical exercise. The demographics were chosen from seven cities in Argentina and evaluated Walking, Moderate Activity, and Intense Activity. 


From this study, we learned that sedentary lifestyles are more prevalent than we might think: 44% of respondents said they spent most of their time in resting mode (sitting or lying down). Specifically, regarding exercise in the form of walking, respondents were asked whether they had walked for at least 10 minutes at some point during their week, which the majority (90%) confirmed they had accomplished in the past seven days. 


However, when moving the category to Moderate Activity, the numbers drop to practically half of the respondents. This means that approximately 6 out of 10 people managed to engage in moderate physical activity for more than 10 minutes at a time during their most recent week. Going into more detail, respondents were asked if they had been able to engage in such activity for more than three days during the week, which only four in ten confirmed, mainly concentrated among young people and residents of Buenos Aires, Cordoba, and San Miguel de Tucuman. 


During the questions focused on the action of intense physical activity, only half of the people consulted could confirm that they had managed to carry out this type of activity for a period equivalent to or greater than 10 minutes in the last week. When asked about their ability to maintain it for at least three days in the previous week (with the same time frame of ten consecutive minutes per day), the number dropped drastically to 30% of the respondents. 


Statistically, these trends of increased intense activity were particularly noted among men, young people, and residents of Buenos Aires. On the other hand, the most significant sedentary status during working hours and leisure time during the pandemic was attributed mainly to women, particularly from Buenos Aires and Mendoza, and prominently to young people compared to older citizens interviewed. 


Based on the previous results, Dr. Marcela La Villa, Director of the Kinesiology Department at Universidad Siglo 21, elaborated on the risks attributed to a sedentary lifestyle: "Staying still for long periods can seriously damage health, causing difficulties in cardiorespiratory and muscular functions, weakening the bone structure and increasing the risk of Non-Transmissible Diseases (NCDs), which can cause serious health problems.”


Her statement allows us to see that not only are there external health consequences linked to a life of physical passivity but there is also a psychological effect at play. From this information, she suggested how to counteract the results: "While it is ideal to complete an hour of daily walking, light, to be active, the best recommendations go through interspersed with intense activities, because they are those that require a physical effort that makes the heart rate much stronger and has greater benefits on our body." 


In the U.S., the American Psychological Association (APA) conducted a survey in 2021 that shows that 61% of American adults report undesired weight changes during the pandemic. Of this percentage, 42% reported weight gain as an undesired change. The causes are reportedly a more sedentary lifestyle, stress, food insecurity, increased alcohol consumption, decreased physical activity, and delayed medical care.


Before the COVID-19 pandemic, obesity was a significant disease affecting millions of people around the world. Overweight people were analyzed using the body mass index (BMI), which links a person's weight and height and ranged from 18.5 to over 30. 


Reaching over 25 in the BMI already shows some surplus weight, while 30 and above is already indisputable obesity, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 


Dr. Steven Hendrick, a bariatric surgeon, explained other side effects of obesity: “(It) affects every organ system of the body. It increases the risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol, all of which can lead to heart disease and stroke. There is an increased risk of developing certain cancers such as breast, cervical, prostate, esophageal, and colon cancer. People who are morbidly obese on average have a 7-year shorter life expectancy and increases the earlier in life you develop obesity.”


As of 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults are diagnosed as overweight, of which approximately 650 million are obese. We can only imagine how much these numbers will have grown. 


A prior diagnosis of obesity aggravates the Coronavirus status of patients. A person with this diagnosis can suffer the same risk consequences as a 75-year-old patient, given that it is one of the main risk factors.


Dr. Javier Butragueño, an exercise and sports specialist with a Ph.D. and MBA in both physical activity and nutrition, explains that the impact of a sedentary lifestyle can permeate people's bodies, particularly senior citizens, from the first two days of inactivity. He maintains that the biggest problem caused is the loss of muscle mass, leading to mobility problems, pain, and long-term chronic fatigue, as well as a detailed effect on glucose processing, which leads to the onset of diabetes in the body. 


Being in a constant state of confinement, boredom, and passivity, it isn't easy to get the energy to be physically active (especially several times a week). Still, it is essential to remember that a sedentary lifestyle has an immeasurable amount of physical and psychological repercussions that can affect long-term health, reinforcing the need to stay active during the pandemic we find ourselves in. 


The strict quarantine we had to endure at the beginning of the pandemic completely reformed our routines and lifestyles and forced us to spend months inside our houses. This vast sharp profound change we went through made us used to sedentary lifestyles, which made it harder to get back into an active lifestyle once the restrictions were lifted.

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