Report: 80% of Americans are insufficiently active

Four out of every five American adults and children are not moving enough.

woman holding plank pose
Photo: Ayo Ogunseinde / Unsplash
  • According to researchers at the US Department of Health and Human Services, 80% of Americans don't exercise enough.
  • Lack of exercise is attributed to $117 billion in annual health care costs.
  • With more duties being automated and outsourced to AI, we're losing our sense of agency.

The annoyance of automated messages when trying to talk to a human at your bank or doctor's office is dwindling as AI software becomes more "human." Or, at least, less like software. Responsive robots have infiltrated every facet of life. According to the NY Times, this new wave of voice-automated products do not pretend to be human, as humans reportedly don't like deception, no matter how much they talk to their toys as sentient friends.

How we interact with software is also changing our physical landscape:

Service workers, sales agents, telemarketers — it's not hard to imagine how millions of jobs that require social interaction, whether on the phone or online, could eventually be eliminated by code.

Sure, such positions are largely hidden from us, yet automation is also changing retail, where the potential for interacting with actual human beings is going through a similar shift. Not that we pay much attention to those agents either: take one look at a retail line and find most people staring at their phones, barely paying attention to the human in front of them. Still, the lack of physicality points to another disturbing trend.

In a new special communication published in JAMA, researchers from the US Department of Health and Human Services reveal a startling figure: 80 percent of US adults and adolescents are insufficiently active.

Government guidelines state that adults should partake in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise every week, alongside at least two strengthening workouts. Children need a bit more. Those between ages six and seventeen should be getting their heart rate up at least an hour a day, alongside three strengthening routines per week. This is simply what our bodies demand.

You don't have to hit the gym to accomplish these goals. Some recommend activities include gardening, climbing stairs instead of taking elevators or escalators, and purposefully parking a distance away from your destination in order to walk, which was part of Bruce Lee's philosophy a half-century ago.

As the researchers write, the health benefits of exercise are tremendous, which is not surprising. What is surprising is how little we actually move. We've constructed society in such a way to allow for as little physical exertion as possible, a true anomaly in the history of our species. It's no wonder we suffer from so many preventable diseases; our physiology is crying for stimulation, which we neglect at every turn.

Just a very few of the benefits, from the report (their lists are much longer):

  • Improved bone health and weight status for children aged 3 through 5 years
  • Improved cognitive function for youth aged 6 to 13 years
  • Reduced risk of cancer at additional sites
  • Brain health benefits, including improved cognitive function, reduced anxiety and depression risk, and improved sleep and quality of life
  • Reduced risk of fall-related injuries for older adults
  • For pregnant women, reduced risk of excessive weight gain, gestational diabetes, and postpartum depression
  • For people with various chronic medical conditions, reduced risk of all-cause and disease-specific mortality, improved function, and improved quality of life

Photo: Emma Simpson / Unsplash

In the United States alone, lack of exercise accounts for $117 billion annually in health care costs. Ten percent of premature mortality is associated with inactivity. To combat this, one's movement vocabulary should include aerobic activities, such as running, cycling, swimming, or climbing; loading your muscle groups with some form of weight; bone-strengthening activities, which include jumping and running; and balancing, as you would do in yoga. Not including any of these results in a malnourished exercise diet.

But we know this already. Our skyrocketing obesity, depression, and anxiety rates are all associated with a lack of exercise, all of which lead to more disease and discomfort. Knowing and doing are separate domains of expertise, however. Many people know they should exercise more, yet without motivation they contribute to the statistics above.

Sadly, as we become more dependent on voice-activated software and other applications of AI, we take less agency of our physicality. Driving requires an immense amount of concentration, one we're gladly willing to outsource to our car's computers. Even seemingly mundane tasks, such as opening a screen to change your playlist, can now be handed over to Alexa. A few clicks of a mouse is not exactly exercise, but it does take us one step further away from doing.

That's always been our challenge since the Industrial Revolution, bridging the gap between knowledge and action. That divide is widening. That four of five people don't move enough to achieve basic health requirements is a public health crisis. Until we treat it as such, it's unlikely we'll cross this growing divide.

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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