Couch potato shaming: New York Times’ click bait, fear mongering campaign against sedentary behavior

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Who would object to a suggestion we get more exercising as a way to promote well being and longevity?

But does a New York Times journalist, Gretchen Reynolds, have to keep hammering us with the importance of exercising with fear-inspiring clichés and badly reported science?

A call to action: Citizen scientists arise!

I’ll end this blog post with some concrete suggestions for actions that concerned citizen scientists can take to alert others to hide and improve the health information circulating in their social network communities.

Cliché alert

The tired cliché of a December 2016 article in the New York Times by this journalist is exposed when  you  Google “New York Times” and “couch potato”.

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There are multiple reasons to maintain physical activity, particularly for aging persons, but it’s not clear that a fear mongering campaign will be motivating.

The fear may be demotivating and the repeated message may well simply contribute to dulling the public against legitimate warnings about modifiable health risks.

It’s not at all clear that the largely correlational research being reviewed points to a causal relationship or a modifiable health risk factor.

Sedentary behavior is correlated with other risk factors, and background variables like increased white-collar jobs.

It is increasingly controversial whether increased physical activity is by itself an effective weight loss strategy.

Why would the respectable New York Times resort to this “couch potato” campaign? Follow the click links to the money.

The December 2016 couch potato story

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Zero in on the research that is the occasion of this story:

For their study, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin asked seven healthy young male volunteers to wear monitors and spend four active days in a row and four sedentary days in a row. When active, the subjects walked as often as they could, averaging more than 17,000 daily steps, and ended up sitting for a total of roughly eight hours a day on average; when sedentary, they sat for 14 hours or so.

On the evening of the fourth day, the men ran for an hour, and the next morning they ate a high-fat, sugary breakfast — basically “ice cream and half and half,” says Edward F. Coyle, a professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas and senior author of the study. In one of their earlier studies, the researchers found that this workout leads to a healthful reduction of triglycerides — fats associated with heart disease that enter the bloodstream after meals — following the next morning’s breakfast. And indeed, when the men were regularly active and ran, their bodies reproduced this same healthful effect. But when the men instead sat for 14 hours a day, running did not bring down the high levels of triglycerides in their blood.

So we are talking about an intensive, but otherwise unimpressive study of seven healthy guys without measures of long term health outcomes. But there is speculative hope for the future of this research:

They hope future experiments will reveal the cellular mechanisms at work and also test if the same dynamics are found in people who are not young, healthy and male (as Coyle suspects will be the case). For now, even though the study’s findings are preliminary, they reinforce the message that we should walk and move as much and as often as we can.

A Google search takes us back to another couch potato article by this journalist in the New York Times:

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In effect, the data showed that “time spent exercising does not supplant time spent sitting,” said Harold Kohl, a professor of epidemiology and kinesiology at the University of Texas and senior author of the study. “It seems that people can be simultaneously very active and very sedentary.”

The study does not necessarily intimate, however, that being a marathon runner and couch potato is in any particular way harmful, Dr. Kohl pointed out. He and his colleagues did not measure the runners’ health, he said, only their lifestyle. “It is impossible to say” based on their data, whether heavy training would ameliorate any undesirable effects of sitting or whether such effects even would occur in the supremely fit.

Yeh, right, but why is this journalist making such a fuss?

Still, the findings are a cautionary reminder that many of us, including the most physically active, may be more sedentary than we imagine. “The fact is that exercise, even at very high doses, does not occupy much time in most people’s days,” said Dr. Whitfield, who himself used to train for triathlons. And while the science about the health impacts of prolonged sitting may still be incomplete, he said, “it’s pretty safe to say that it would a good idea for most of us to spend more of our time up and moving.”

Sure, but probably best not achieved with motivation from fear-mongering BS in the New York Times.

When the couch potato went global

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The consequences for global and personal health are punishing and likely to grow more so, reports another first-of-its-kind study in the Lancet series. In it, the authors conclude that sitting around most of the day has become as deadly as smoking or obesity.

Beware of first-of-its-kind large epidemiological studies with deceptively neatly apportioned attributable risk 

Specifically, using data from W.H.O. and other large population studies worldwide, the researchers determined that inactivity is linked to about 6 percent of all instances of heart disease on Earth; 7 percent of Type 2 diabetes cases; and 10 percent of all breast and colon cancers, including among people who don’t smoke and are of normal weight.

About 5.3 million people a year die from diseases tied to physical inactivity, the authors calculated.

By comparison, about 5.1 million die annually because of smoking, as an accompanying comment article points out.

“It seems clear from our data that physical inactivity, on a global scale, is at least equivalent to smoking and obesity,” in terms of its deleterious impact on people’s health, says Dr. I-Min Lee, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, who led the study.

But what does this “equivalency” mean? Smoking is a discrete behavior and targeting it has been shown to have observable effects on health of individuals and populations. As measured in these kind of studies, “physical activity” remains a less precise “behavior” entangled with a full range of the variables (confounds) that might explain some of the effects that are observed, but also that may get in the way of modifying physical activity and observing the expected changes in health. This is all another way of saying this kind of large-scale correlational data is quite messy if one wants to tease out specific modifiable risk factors. So the equivalency is not so equivalent.

Corrections: An earlier version of this article misstated that a third of global biomass exists in North America; it is a third of global biomass due to obesity, not biomass over all.

Haha, we all make mistakes, but in a campaign characterized by lots of exaggeration, this becomes a funny commentary.

But wow, as a reader noted, expressing these associations in biomass sure gets attention, even if it invites a rejoinder from readers.

Tim B Seattle

“reported that, worldwide, people’s waistlines are expanding, with the total combined weight of human beings on Earth now exceeding 287 million tons. About 3.5 million tons of that global human biomass is due to obesity, a third of which exists in North America, although we account for only 6 percent of the world’s population.”

This is the first time I have read the word ‘tonnage’ when speaking about human beings. This is grotesque and the future medical bills will overwhelm many systems and countries. Another idea for reducing tonnage, how about sensible long term goals toward human population reductions, with our numbers now past 7 billion and adding another billion in 12-13 years.

And then there is another reader’s observation that sedentary behavior may not be a “lifestyle” choice:

DCserver Washington, DC

I don’t think its a really a ‘lifestyle’ choice. Its office jobs. As more of the world follows our path to office 9-5s, this trend will continue. Never in my life have I had such little energy and had to watch what I ate as when I started working in offices. Standing desks and pedaling aside, it is going to take a cultural shift to include some kind of physical activity in work culture, be it mandated outdoor meetings, attire changes, or flexible work hours to accommodate more activity. Unfortunately, lately it seems the opposite: all my colleagues eat lunch at their desks, work late hours, and take cabs to meeting locations easily within walking distance (because otherwise they’d arrive hot and sweaty in their wool suits).

And before this article was the Active Couch Potato article

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Can someone exercise and still be a couch potato? That peculiarly modern question motivated a new study from Finland in which a group of healthy, physically active volunteers donned special shorts that measure muscular activity in the legs. The volunteers then went about their daily lives.

All were diligent exercisers. Some ran. Others lifted weights or played soccer. A few Nordic-walked. On one day during the study, they worked out as usual. On another, they did not exercise.

Throughout, the shorts measured how much they actually moved.

The study involved healthy volunteers observed for one to six days. Only 27 of 80 provided usable data.

Why is the New York Times in this campaign?

Like a lot of print media, the NYT is in transition to being much more dependent on the Internet for attracting readers. Like a lot of print media, it faces a financial crisis because it’s harder to make money from people reading articles on the Internet, rather than buying papers. Sure, there are still the benefits of advertisement, but this does not generate enough to compensate for the loss of paid subscriptions

People have come to expect that articles will be for free that they find on the Internet. The New York Times has to keep meeting that expectation but increase paid subscriptions. For a while, when you clicked on a link on your computer or mobile device, you were taken to an article, but also a pop-up that cautions you to register and receive 10 free views a month or, better, buy a subscription.

But now, at least on mobile devices something different is happening. If you click on a link, you briefly see the article but the view is quickly replaced by a pitch for a subscription. Apparently someone using a mobile device still has the 10 free views a month, but can’t access them on the mobile device.

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As we saw in its coverage of the recent US election, the New York Times provided some superb, in-depth investigative reporting, but that costs money. Media like the New York Times cannot afford to continue to give away free product. But consumers are used to getting their news for free and, at least for now, will go to competitors.

Expect to see a lot more of what is now free on the internet becoming a mixture of free and paid, premium. Fair enough, the free lunches may be coming to an end.

Suggestions for citizen scientists working together to improve health information in social media

Expect to see a lot of clickbait headlines from otherwise respectable media.

Before liking or retweeting a link on Twitter, you might consider examining what is the evidence base for the claims are being made.

In the case of the December 2016 New York Times article, you could have quickly discovered that the claims were based on a very modest and overhyped study.

Wouldn’t it have been great if some citizen scientists took it upon themselves to put in “based on a study of 7 healthy guys” before retweeting?

Wouldn’t it have been great if some citizen scientist with more time on their hands had done some googling and discovered that this journalist, writing in this source, engages in fear mongering to the point of cliché?

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I will soon be offering scientific writing courses on the web as I have been doing face-to-face for almost a decade. Sign up at my new website to get notified about these courses, as well as upcoming blog posts at this and other blog sites.  Get advance notice of forthcoming e-books and web courses. Lots to see at CoyneoftheRealm.com

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