Is Your Job A Health Hazard?

We really don't need a lot of exotic theories to account for rampant obesity in the modern age. We just need what we have: a massive shift in energy balance.
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One of the higher profile medical stories of the past week was the news that work is increasingly workless. In the physical sense, that is. Physics defines work as force times distance, and we do ever less of the former, and electrons traverse ever more of the latter on our behalf.

Specifically, the paper published in PLoS One, and the media coverage of the study published everywhere else, tell us that the average adult male expends roughly 142 fewer calories per day at work, and the average adult female expends 124 fewer. The findings are based on an analysis of Department of Labor statistics from the 1960s, to 2008.

The theoretical importance of this finding is that it helps to explain the obesity epidemic, and a bit of number crunching will quickly show why. Assume that everything else other than energy expenditure at work -- such as all other energy expenditure and total calorie intake -- were constant over the past four decades (nonsense, of course, and we'll come to that shortly -- but go with it for now).

A man burning 142 fewer calories each of roughly 240 work days per year would burn just shy of 34,000 fewer calories annually. Using the standard, if somewhat inaccurate, 3,500 calories per pound of body fat gained or lost, that translates to about 9.7 lbs of weight gain in just one year! A comparable calculation with the woman's 124 fewer calories burned translates to 8.5 lbs gained per year.

That this one finding, if even remotely accurate, could account for much of the modern obesity epidemic all on its own goes a long way toward demonstrating how un-mysterious the epidemic is! We really don't need a lot of exotic theories to account for rampant obesity in the modern age. We just need what we have: a massive shift in energy balance.

That we're burning fewer calories at work in the modern age is about as surprising as a report telling us we're using more cell phones. And, in fact, the two are separate halves of the same, obvious truth. We have ever more technology in our lives doing what muscles used to do at work and at play. This is another one of those times when a careful analysis of a lot of data demonstrates what the average person would quickly conclude merely by not living under a rock.

And this obvious truth about energy expenditure is just part of an equally obvious, larger truth -- also accessible to all with an above-rock-bottom view of the world. We are eating more, too.

You may already know my refrain on this topic: throughout all of human history until very recently, calories were relatively scarce and hard to get and physical activity was unavoidable. We have devised a modern world in which physical activity is increasingly scarce and hard to get (as evidence by those 120 to 140 fewer calories burned at work each day), and calories are unavoidable.

The assumption I asked for above notwithstanding, nothing relevant to energy balance has stayed constant over the time span in question. The number of processed foods has increased by tens of thousands. The use of food chemicals has gone up. Portion sizes have increased. Fast food has become a fixture in the modern landscape and the modern diet.

Time for food preparation has gone down, and with it, skills for food preparation have atrophied. Factory farming has emerged, and surged. The use of hormones in animal husbandry has expanded. The internet was invented.

The list could go on, but let's stop there. The proximal explanation for epidemic obesity is less use of feet, less prudent use of forks. The root explanation is everything about modern living that makes it modern. Workless work is an example.

What, then, are the take-away messages from this study, and the media attention to it?

First, the obesity epidemic is hard to fix, but not hard to explain. We tend to act as if the first requires the second, and so keep doing studies to re-verify the obvious. It's hard, but not complicated. The causes are as easy to see as the differences in the average work day now, and 40 years ago.

Second, since obesigenic influences have been engineered into the structure of the work day, it is indeed silly as well as wrong to blame the victims of rampant obesity. The amount of physical work demanded of you by your job is not a matter of will power. It is a fundamental change at the societal level, far larger than the personal choices and personal responsibility of any individual employee.

Third, the fact that the obesity epidemic is easily explained does not mean that every individual's struggle with weight is quite so clear. There are cases of extreme susceptibility to weight gain, and unusual resistance to weight loss- a topic I've recently addressed on these pages.

Fourth, if we engineered the causes of obesity into the typical day and are reaping the consequences, logic suggests that we should engineer the remedy back into daily routine if we hope ever to reap the reward. Our recently launched A-B-E for Fitness program is a timely example; the hourly five-minute activity bursts it is designed to fit into a work day would allow the average adult to burn 100 calories or more each day. What we engineered out, we can engineer back in.

Data confirming less work at work is scarcely an epiphany. But it does serve to remind us of things we broke along the path of modern progress, and of the need to fix them. It reminds us, in other words, that we've had work cut out of our work for us -- and we've cut our work cut out for us figuring out how to engineer it back in!