Recently, the American Journal of Medicine published a study showing that virtually all of the lifestyle behaviors that keep us healthy are either in decline or holding steady. A study led by Dana King, professor of family medicine at the Medical College of South Carolina compared population samples from 1988-94 and 2001-2006 and found some unsettling data about American health.
So, in a nutshell, we got fatter, smoked more, ran less and ate worse. Not a ringing endorsement of American health.
While this on its face is cause for concern, another recent study from Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano of UC-Santa Barbara and Pomona colleges (respectively) gives me reason to speculate on what has caused such a significant health decline.
In 2006, Kuhn and Lozano published a study based on the work patterns of American men age 25-64. They found a significant increase in the number of people working more than 50 hours a week. Particularly among college educated men where the number had risen from 20% to 30% since 1980. This dovetails with UN International Labor Organization's study which found that Americans work more hours for more days than any other nation.
I can’t help but see at least a correlative effect between the health and work studies. It becomes progressively harder to maintain a healthy life style as you work more and more. It’s hard to find time to go to the grocery store, cook a healthy dinner and go for a run. Whereas, it’s very easy to get Chinese take-out, eat it in 10 minutes while working and then sit on the couch watching television for 3 hours before bed.
I’m not judging anyone, I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to being lazy, but it's easy to be lazy when leading a healthy life style takes such an enormous commitment. It’s difficult to convince yourself to spend some of your free time on working out and cooking when you have so little of it.
I think it's also difficult to convince people to maintain a healthy life style when the spend all of their time working. The ILO study also points out that Americans take fewer vacation days than anyone else. Just like the challenge of maintaining discipline in the face of a 50 hour work week, I think it's awfully difficult to maintain discipline when you're working 48 weeks a year. There is a reason Europeans tend to live longer than Americans and I suspect it has something to with the fact that they take vacations and try to enjoy life.
I'm not suggesting that there's a clear causal link here as there are a lot of factors that contribute to American health, but I do think that if you want people to engage in life prolonging behavior it helps if they enjoy life enough to want to prolong it.
Just a little food for thought.