Is sitting the new smoking? The health effects of our sedentary lifestyles were discussed at an Evidence-Based Integrated Healthcare symposium recently hosted by RMIT.
The event was an opportunity to highlight some of the major issues affecting the national health system – such as chronic disease, sleep and respiratory disorders – while gathering together some of Australia’s top minds in integrated healthcare, together with health practitioners and students.
Dr Rasul Baghirov from the World Health Organization (WHO) opened proceedings citing Dr Margaret Chan’s statement that universal health coverage was "…the single most powerful concept that public health has to offer."
As coordinator for integrated service delivery for the WHO regional office in the Western Pacific region, Dr Baghirov outlined the challenges in supplying health services to an increasing population.
His presentation illustrated how emerging demands such as ageing, chronic disease and even climate change, coupled with system constraints, were affecting health systems globally.
Professor Neville Owen, Head of the Behavioural and Generational Change Program at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, told guests that excessive sitting time – whether in front of a television or at the desk – was emerging as a new risk factor for chronic disease.
Owen compared sitting to smoking, with its numerous health hazards including reduced blood flow and spinal stress. He suggested beneficial changes that could be made throughout the day, including standing up between presentations to applaud speakers.
His theory, backed by evidence from an array of studies, suggests that those who sit for lengthy periods of time had twice the risk of developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even premature death compared to those who break up long sitting periods with regular standing or stepping.
Owen stressed that while periods of standing were beneficial for health, regular periods of moderate exercise bring greater benefits.
Professor Wendy Hoy, from the Faculty of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Queensland, presented her findings on chronic disease burden in remote Aboriginal people.
Hoy has studied people living in three remote Aboriginal communities, concluding that as age increases, so too does the prevalence of conditions such as renal failure, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Together with her team, she has been evaluating the statistics at the community level to find the causes and risk factors underlying these chronic diseases.
"The substitution of a sedentary environment for a nomadic lifestyle, coupled with a high calorific diet low in micronutrients is part of the problem," Hoy said.
She said a worrying factor that was still prevalent in Indigenous communities was low birth weight rate, caused by multi-generational nutritional deprivation, which can then lead to susceptibility to obesity and diabetes in later life.
Another key speaker was Professor Ron Grunstein, Head of the NHMRC Centre for Integrated Research and Understanding of Sleep at the University of Sydney.
His research dispels the myth of the "Thatcher gene" – that people can function well on just a few hours of sleep per night – demonstrating that six hours of unbroken sleep per 24 hours is crucial in clearing the brain of toxins and waste.
Grunstein provided evidence on the effects of chronic nocturnal sleep restriction on performance, citing the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor meltdown, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Chernobyl and the Selby train disaster as accidents that were made by people operating on less than optimal sleep.
Other speakers included Martin Fletcher from the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency and Dr Joanna Flynn AM, the Chair of the Medical Board of Australia.
RMIT was represented by Professor David Adams from the Health Innovations Research Institute, who provided an overview of his studies on the use of cone snail venom to target pain.
Professor Charlie Xue, Head of Health Sciences, said the symposium demonstrated that through multi-disciplinary collaboration, evidence-based integrative care with a people focus represented the best future for addressing significant international health challenges.
"In the face of an ageing population and a shrinking workforce, the key to maintaining the health of our nation lies in focusing on practical, efficient healthcare services."