The evolution of technology has reached a point where pretty much anything is available at the touch of a button. Shopping, learning, working and entertainment can all be accessed from the comfort of our own homes, on a train or sat in a cafe. But it's coming at a price; and a relatively crucial one at that. Health. And as technology changes the way we live, those who will suffer most will be our children.
Last week, two studies emerged in the media that really hit home just how inactive children are becoming and the role technology may be playing.
The first, a UK study of 6,500 children aged seven to eight, found that only 51% achieved the recommended hour of physical activity each day, with girls (38%) proving to be far less active than boys (63%). The second study revealed that the average British child gets their first mobile phone aged around 12, but nearly one in 10 has one by the age of five. Yes, five. It begs the question; do these two issues come hand in hand? As children are given mobile devices for communicating, playing games and watching TV programmes at an earlier and earlier age, is the result that they become less active?
Although these studies are UK specific, they are just the tip of a very large iceberg. For instance, in the US, only 29% of high school students had participated in at least 60 minutes of physical activity on each of the seven days before the survey. Similarly, a 2008 study in Spain found that just 48% of six to 18 years old did at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day. The same research highlighted that 49% of girls and 37% of boys in Spain did not do any sports in their free time.
Statistics such as these warrant attention and action. It's during childhood when habits are ingrained and the freedom exists for active play and movement. The worry is, participation in physical activity usually declines as young people get older. If inactivity figures are currently as high as these in children, what hope do they have as adults?
In 2008, around 31% of adults worldwide aged 15 and over were insufficiently active; again, women more so than men (34% versus 28%). But as these figures were released over five years ago, they're likely to now be far higher, especially considering the statistics emerging on inactivity in children.
The world is slowing down, but as a result, the number of people who develop long-term conditions is increasing, as are carbon emissions that accompany a sedentary lifestyle. Physical inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide and approximately 3.2 million deaths each year are attributable to insufficient physical activity. The only way we can start to bring this number down substantially is to focus on education and active encouragement in children. They are our future and targeted efforts need to be focused far more here.
Dr Paul Zollinger-Read, chief medical officer, Bupa
Copy on this page is provided by Bupa, supporter of the health and wellbeing hub
Is technology affecting your health?
Our love affair with technology is leading to new health problems.
Technology is being incorporated into every part of modern day living. Here's how to stay switched on and safe.
iPods and MP3 players
They are as ubiquitous as mobile phones among the younger generation, but iPods and MP3 players are putting people's hearing at risk. Nearly 70 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 72 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds suffer from tinnitus, or ringing in their ears, an Australian Hearing report has found.
Worryingly, the report, Is Australia Listening?, found that 60 per cent of people who regularly listen to music through headphones pump the volume beyond safe levels. "Our research has found that even though most people know that loud music causes hearing loss, more than two-thirds of Australians regularly listen to music through headphones," says Janette Thorburn, principal audiologist at Australian Hearing. Australian Hearing recommends switching the volume to a level that still allows you to hear someone who is at arm's length without them having to shout.
The organisation also advises limiting the amount of time you are exposed to very loud noise, and taking time out from noisy concerts or clubs. If you are concerned that loud noise has damaged your hearing, check your hearing over the phone using Telscreen toll-free on 1800 826 500.
Sitting at a computer
The computer age has given birth to a raft of health problems, affecting everything from our backs and eyes to our balance Office workers are the most at risk, and experts say it is important we monitor our workplace health.
Back Spending six to eight hours a day in front of a computer can cause us to become "hunched and immobile", says Chiropractors Association of Australia (CAA) spokesman Dr Patrick Sim. This can cause shoulder, arm, hand and neck problems, and issues with balance and coordination. The association says good posture at the desk and a comfortable and supportive chair are paramount. "We evolved to be upright and mobile," Dr Sim says. "The more hunched you are after the age of 60, the more your risk of death increases because the heart and lungs are compressed, reducing oxygen and blood flow." Dr Sim says the answer is simple: move more. At the very least, he recommends spending three minutes a day doing Straighten Up Australia exercises (www.straightenupaustralia.com.au).
Other tips including going for a brisk walk at lunch, a stroll around the office every hour, and checking your posture by standing with your heels and back against the wall and seeing how far back you have to move your head until it touches the wall too. See a chiropractor to have your posture and spine assessed.
Eyes Eye strain has become a common work-related health complaint, particularly among office workers. But ophthalmologist Dr Vicki Andersons says there are many misconceptions about sitting in front of a computer or TV screen for hours on end. Problems such as headaches usually stem from poor posture or distance from the screen, rather than the eyes being strained, she says.
"When you sit in front of a screen all day, your blink rate reduces from 20 times a minute to once or twice a minute," Dr Andersons says. "This has a tendency to dry the eyes. But when you start blinking again it clears it up." Dr Andersons says there is no evidence to show that computers cause long-term vision deterioration. She says people who experience dry eyes should use lubricant-only eye drops and take regular breaks.
Blackberry thumb, iPod finger
Are your thumbs sore or wrists aching? If you are an excessive mobile phone or iPod user, you could have "BlackBerry thumb" or "iPod finger". Health experts in Australia are noticing a rise in repetitive strain injury (RSI)-style injuries, particularly with the advent of the internet on pocketsized hand-held devices.
The American Society of Hand Therapists has issued a consumer alert, warning users of small electronic gadgets that heavy thumb use could lead to painful swelling of the sheath around the tendons in the thumb. The group recommends taking frequent breaks during emailing and resting your arms on a pillow for support.
Dr Sim says there is also a change in posture that occurs because of the hunched position people assume while sending a text message, which can result in neck and shoulder pain and headaches. The CAA recommends stretches such as the Prayer stretch: push your palms and fingers together, then the backs of your hands together, and bend each thumb gently backwards towards your shoulder. These stretches target the small muscles, tendons and ligaments in the hand.
Cancer and mobile phones
Debate continues to rage about whether or not mobile phones cause cancer, with research providing conflicting answers. The Cancer Council of Australia's website says that evidence suggests there is no reason for concern about harmful effects, including cancer, from mobile phone use. However, it says the lack of evidence does not prove absence of risk.
For people who are concerned, limiting your exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic energy is recommended by limiting the length of calls and using a hands-free device to keep the phone away from your body. "The World Health Organization's (WHO) cancer body says there is a possible case [for a link to cancer], but it is not saying there is a case," says Professor David Roder, general manager of research innovation at the Cancer Council SA.
"If there is an effect, it seems to be incredibly small." Professor Roder says WHO is involved in a study involving 13 countries that aims to get more concrete results, particularly surrounding brain tumours and cancer of the salivary glands.
While brain tumours have not generally increased, he says one study found a slight spike in a type of tumour on the side of the head. Professor Roder says the risk with new technologies is that early studies often do not show any harm from repeated use, but the damage may only appear later.
August 9, 200912:00am