At a family Christmas lunch over the festive season, someone asked the question – why is mental illness such a growing problem among young people? Obviously, many lighter and more frivolous subjects were also discussed, but none of them developed into an opening for a blog post.
Anyway, several answers were put forward, including an increased willingness to talk about mental health, the unrealistic aspirations and pressures set by social media, the frightening rise of the far right, and poor financial prospects including crippling student debt and rising house prices.
I suggested that it was related to climate change, and the fact that in their lifetimes, young people could expect to see the planet turn into a burning uninhabitable hellhole. An awkward silence followed, then pudding was offered.
I think all of these answers are true to an extent, but there’s another important factor which I didn’t think of until I saw an article in The Guardian yesterday: our increasingly sedentary lifestyles.
Over time, as technological advancements have been made, our levels of physical activity have dropped to a tiny fraction of what they once were.
In our working lives, we’ve evolved from hunting and foraging to agriculture to industry. All of these involved varying levels of hard physical labour. Then came office work, and now the vast majority of us spend our working days sitting at a desk, with very little movement involved.
At home, we used to have to build and mend and clean and scrub and wash and cook by hand, but these tasks have been taken over by labour-saving devices like washing machines, food processors and robot vacuum cleaners.
We all have access to motorised transport, meaning that we hardly walk anywhere anymore, but we don’t need to go out anyway. We can order everything to be delivered, we have all the entertainment we need at home, and socialising involves sending emojis and funny videos rather than going out and seeing each other face-to-face.
It’s a serious problem. Public Health England found that 43% of adults aged 19 to 29 in England report less than 10 minutes brisk walking each month. And this level of inactivity is similar across all ages – in adults aged 40 to 60, the figure is 40%.
And the evidence is clear that less physical activity means worse mental health, not to mention the increased risk of life-threatening physical illness.
Advances in technology are fantastic in many ways, like improvements in medicine and safety. But we’re offsetting the positive effects with the negative effects by allowing technology to make us inactive and unhealthy.
We all need to become more physically active. It’s not something we should think about as a new thing to take on. It’s something we should rediscover simply to live as we’re designed to.
A new year’s resolution to exercise more perhaps?