Another reason to turn the television off

May 06, 1999|By Mohammad N. Akhter

THERE is a way to address the nation's burgeoning medical care bill that wouldn't cost any money. It would involve neither new government programs nor place any additional burdens on private employers.

Put simply, we would turn off our televisions and get a little more exercise.

Few single steps would do as much for the nation's health -- physically and in other ways. After all, the basic problem with our medical care system today is not the system itself but rather the increasing burdens that we place upon it. Some of this mounting burden may be unavoidable as Americans get older, but much of it is not. More than half the nation's medical bill is lifestyle induced. We eat too much, drink too much, smoke too much and get far too little exercise.

Down the tube

We are literally living ourselves sick, and television plays a large role in this downward spiral. Most criticism of television has focused on content -- on the sex, violence and cynically degraded sensibility that pervade the medium and therefore our homes. This is an important battle. Yet no less important is the sheer amount of time that Americans spend watching TV. Kids typically spend three hours a day in front of the tube, and adults even more. On average, Americans watch TV the equivalent of 56 days per year.

Such numbers are well known, but the implications often go unnoted. TV viewing is the principal source of inactivity, which has become a nationwide problem. It is related to obesity which is becoming a national norm. More than half of all Americans are overweight, and roughly a third are clinically obese.

The percentage of overweight children aged 6-17 has doubled since 1968. It is not coincidental that one recent study showed that, between 1982 and 1994, the incidence of Type II diabetes -- the kind closely linked with the overweight -- has quadrupled among kids.

There's also what economists call the "opportunity cost." When kids are parked in front of the television, they're not engaged in the activities -- running, jumping, playing -- that are essential to the formation of healthy bones and muscles, which help prevent future problems and injuries.

Growing weaklings

Even major-league baseball scouts have observed that kids have weaker and less resilient arms today because they spend so much time watching television instead of playing catch. When kids stare at TV, they don't use their imaginations and create their own games. They simply absorb the cues on how to solve problems, what to eat, what to wear, what to nag their parents for, and most of these things are either expensive or unhealthful or -- most likely -- both.

Meanwhile, their parents aren't just putting on the pounds. While they watch TV, they're not talking with their children or helping them with homework. They aren't at the PTA meeting or involved with the community.

Community work

Even this has health consequences: Research shows that people who volunteer more and are more involved in helping others tend to have better health.

During the past century, the nation has made much progress against infectious disease, which for eons had been the scourge of humankind. Lately, however, we have regressed in terms of degenerative diseases, the ones that arise from habits that prosperity helps create.

No question America needs to improve the way it delivers medical care. But in the end, the best prescription for reducing costs is to live more healthfully. This is something we can start to do now, and the first step is as simple as turning off the television.

Mohammad N. Akhter is executive director of the American Public Health Association, the oldest and largest organization of public health professionals in the United States.

Pub Date: 5/06/99

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