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28 April 2017

The Potential Impact of Climate Change on Exercise and Physical Fitness

When extremes of weather hit, our motivation to get out in the open for a little exercise diminishes in their wake. Whether it be too cold or too hot, too wet or too windy, unpleasant conditions force us to retreat into the comfort of our homes, neglecting our physical health in favour of self-imposed seclusion from the outside world.

A new study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, warns of the negative impact of such a sedentary lifestyle:

“At a physiological level, too little exercise can produce costly health outcomes like obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and insufficient physical activity is a leading cause of death in the United States [it is the fourth-leading cause of death worldwide and the second biggest contributor to cancer in Australia].

“Sedentary lifestyles are also associated with psychological concerns such as impaired cognitive performance and a greater risk of clinical depression and anxiety. Human well-being clearly suffers from insufficient physical activity. Yet even in spite of its substantial benefits, people in many countries participate in below-recommended levels of physical activity and are becoming increasingly sedentary.”

This comes as no particular surprise; our requirement for some form of physical exertion in order to maintain good health is well-known. What is potentially problematic is the fact that as climate change has an increasingly exaggerated impact on the planet and its weather, the extremes of temperature that drive us into our homes are only going to become more common, and more severe, leading to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle for many.

“Of the environmental factors affecting physical activity rates, temperature plays a noteworthy role,” say authors Nick Obradovich and James Fowler, of Harvard University. “When it is too cold or too hot, adults perform less physical activity, resulting in more sedentary lifestyles. This reduction is mostly due to the nature of adult physical activity: the vast majority of exercise-related physical activity occurs outdoors. When it is too cold or too hot to go outdoors – for a walk, a jog, or to garden – many simply forgo physical activity entirely.”

In order to properly understand the potential impact of climate change on our rates of physical activity and exercise, the researchers looked at data showing the recreational physical activity of approximately 1.9 million Americans between 2002 and 2012 and measured it against daily weather data over the same period. They then made forecasts based on climate change projections to predict future patterns over the next 30-80 years.

They found that the optimum temperature for peak physical activity was around 28°C, with the obese and the elderly being most affected by overly-hot weather. 80% of temperature ranges between 2002 and 2012 fell below the threshold of 28°C.

As temperatures in the region rise towards that magic number as the effects of climate change become more pronounced, the study actually predicts that this will lead to a rise in physical activity in countries with a temperature climate, such as the US:

“In both our city-level and geographic forecasts, we predict that much of the United States will experience increased physical activity due to future climatic changes,” the study states.

However, in countries such as Australia with a much warmer climate as standard, the rise in prevalence and severity of extreme weather conditions could lead to hazardous levels of heat that are sure to have the opposite effect in terms of physical activity, further promoting a sedentary lifestyle as outside conditions become unbearable to exercise in. This is an issue that Obradovich and Fowler recognise, and plan to study further:

“Our data are restricted to observations from one country with a temperate climate,” the pair admits.

“It is critical to repeat this analysis where possible in countries with warmer average climates and lower prevalence of air conditioning, as they may see net reductions in physical activity due to climate change.

“Ultimately, most of the social impacts of climate change are likely to be negative. Climate change may reduce economic output, amplify rates of conflict, produce psychological distress, increase exposure to the social effects of drought and increase heat-related mortality and morbidity, among other illnesses. However, climatic changes are unlikely to be uniformly costly to society, and it is important to investigate both costs and benefits. Here we uncover a possible beneficial effect of climate change for the United States.”

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.