Sedentary Lifestyle Attacked and Defended

It is generally accepted that the sedentary lifestyle adversely affects many body systems, and promotes obesity, and is just generally a way a committing suicide in slow motion. The pastimes that people sit for, television viewing and video-game playing, are widely criticized as obesity villains. The reaction varies from angry, indignant backlash to a calm and measured willingness to figure out what’s really going on. This post looks back over some of the things that have been said in the past few years.

Chris Suellentrop reminded readers that when the game of golf was introduced in Scotland in the 1400s, it was soon banned by the government. The reason? Golf seduced young men away from archery practice, which was vital for national defense. Apparently the advent of pinball had a similar effect for a few decades in the United States, and was forbidden because it was too much like gambling, and also because schoolboys were putting their nickels and dimes into the machines rather than buying lunch.

When grownups don’t like something, for whatever reason, proving how bad it is for kids can usually get results. We have seen this with video games.

Yet, some have the temerity to suggest that playing video games can be beneficial. About 10 years ago, a theory was making the rounds that these entertainments develop character, because playing cultivates such traits as an appreciation for delayed gratification, which is key to success in any area of life. The defenders did not specifically have the obesity epidemic in mind, but it is glaringly obvious that delayed gratification is immensely important if a young person is to pursue the goal of escaping obesity.

Suellentrop discussed some of the other positive characteristics that gaming is said to cultivate, and wrote:

Among these traits, perhaps the most important is that gamers, who are well acquainted with the reset button, understand that repeated failure is the road to success.

In 2010, a study conducted by Prof. Tom Baranowski (Baylor College of Medicine) indicated that some “serious” video games could help kids change their real-life behaviors around diet and exercise. The games he had in mind, “Escape from Diab” and “Nanoswarm,” were specifically developed for that purpose. Playing them several times was said to have a “meaningful” effect on the children’s level of fruit and vegetable consumption.

But that only amounted to an increase of about one serving per day, and failed to reach even the recommended minimum number of servings. Even more discouragingly, physical activity levels did not seem to be affected at all.

The following year, Reason writer Greg Beato explained the allure of sedentary electronic pastimes:

Compared to games, the real world comes up short. It lacks the clearly articulated goals that help motivate people. Its feedback systems aren’t as deftly calibrated to help us improve ourselves. And thus it doesn’t make us happy as readily as, say, the quest for armor with magic powers.

He also quoted Jane McGonigal, who held the position of director of Game Research & Development at a think tank called Institute for the Future. She wanted the world to understand that gamers are not lazy, but marvelously productive and industrious, and said:

In today’s society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy.

What are those needs? Real engagement, a heroic purpose, and the opportunity to collaborate with other humans to pursue meaningful goals. At the time, there were reportedly 183 million people in America who devoted an average of 13 hours per week to playing video games.

MeGonigal asked us to envision a future in which all this energy would be dedicated to solving such real-world problems as “climate change, food insecurity, and rising rates of depression.” Presumably, some of that energy could be spent on devising ways to spend two hours a day playing video games without gaining weight or contracting diabetes.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Playing with Our Heads,”, Jan./Feb. 2007
Source: “Video games get kids to eat more veg, fruit: study,”, 12/07/10
Source: “Debunking the myth of the lazy video gamer,”, 02/24/11
Photo credit: Mike Licht, via Visual Hunt/CC BY

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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