California Forum

Americans work hard for their poor health. But it doesn’t have to be that way

A patient has her blood pressure checked by a registered nurse in Plainfield, Vt. Thursday, June 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)
A patient has her blood pressure checked by a registered nurse in Plainfield, Vt. Thursday, June 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File) AP

A recent study found – surprise, surprise – that even though Americans know it’s not good for them to sit so much, they’re sitting more than ever. (Just as I’m doing while I write these sentences.)

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that total daily sitting time among teenagers and adults had increased between 2007 and 2016. For adolescents, sedentary time grew from seven hours a day to a little more than eight hours. Adults actually sit less, but their sedentary time grew from 5.5 hours a day to nearly 6.5. Work and school did not account for the increase.

After years in which heart-failure rates dropped in this country, they’re now rising again. And the issue isn’t the number of senior-citizen baby boomers, Reuters reports. The climb has mainly been among middle-aged and younger people. It’s also especially affecting African Americans. And while the study wasn’t designed to reveal exactly what was behind the rise, two major theories have emerged: Obesity levels, and lack of access to healthcare, possibly caused by a shift in Medicare rules.

Certainly, obesity rates continue to rise and are known to be a risk factor for heart failure. We eat too much highly processed fast and convenience food, and we don’t get enough exercise. Our chronic stress levels are becoming a public health crisis, according to an article in the magazine of the American Psychological Association.

Opinion

The one thing we’re doing right? Fewer of us are smoking.

The message we’re given is to pull ourselves together, exercise, meditate, cook whole foods from scratch, eat them more slowly and engage in “self care.” When we don’t do all that, we see it as our failure, our lack of willpower.

But that’s a far too simplistic view of why Americans, as wealthy as our nation is, have relatively poor health compared with other nations. In fact, though the U.S. spends more on health care than comparable industrial nations around the world, it ranks last among them in health.

The problems with our health are part of a complex pattern, inextricably linked to a society that for all its wealth sets us up for bad habits and poor outcomes. We live in a more demanding and less rewarding work world in which elite executives enrich themselves to an obscene degree while cutting health insurance and pension plans and job security; a free-rein, marketing-oriented culture that barrages us with messages about things we should buy, many of which are bad for us; and a society that leaves us without a real safety net.

Instead of reveling in close social networks, we spend our time on endless binge-watching and video games. In last year’s ranking of the happiest nations, the U.S. fell four points to number 18. We’ve never cracked the top 10.

I’m reminded of a thirtysomething friend who until recently worked at a tech startup in Southern California. Employees already worked 10-hour days, when a message came through from the CEO saying that work-life balance was an overrated concept. People needed to work harder or the business would never make it to Initial Public Offereing.

Another story in the APA magazine, dating back 12 years ago, sums up much of what was going wrong at the time, citing a study on ill health in the U.S. compared with the United Kingdom. It still rings true.

The article doesn’t waste time getting to the point: “Simply living in America may be as risky as a diet of doughnuts and beer, researchers suggest.”

Even though Americans spend 2.5 times more on health care, the article notes, “we are far sicker than the British in rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attack, stroke, lung disease and cancer.” And the richest, healthiest Americans are no healthier than the poorest people in the United Kingdom.

Karin Klein
Karin Klein

No one really knows the full causes. But various experts in the article point to the long work hours of Americans. They’re twice as likely to work 50 hours or more a week. Worried about downsizing and outsourcing, unsure whether they’ll have enough money saved for retirement or how they’ll send the kids to college, or how they’ll pay for a serious medical problem with their insurance’s high deductibles and copays.

People who work 10 hours a day or more aren’t likely to come home with the time and energy to chop fresh vegetables or cook a pot of beans. They’re too exhausted by workload, sleep deprivation – almost a third of Americans sleep less than six hours a night – and stress to go for a walk outside and, by then, it’s dark anyway.

Yet a new study finds that ultra-processed food is behind our obesity epidemic – not just obvious junk foods like soda, but white bread, frozen breakfast sausages and those long supermarket rows of breakfast cereals.

In other words, there are larger forces at play, telling us to work harder for fewer benefits and less security, coaxing us in subtle and sophisticated ways to spend our time in front of screens instead of socializing and moving, and spend our money on food that barely deserves to be called food. And then we’re told that we’re a frustratingly weak bunch of people who refuse to do what’s good for our health.

We’re conditioned to fear spending more as a society on universal healthcare and affordable higher education while we’re spending more money on those things as individuals.

Other countries – at least 17 of them – are showing us that it doesn’t have to be this way. And yet we cling to the messages that those voices keep hammering into our brains. They’re not voices that have our best interests at heart.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.

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