Sedentary Death Syndrome: Public Health Menace

“In the United States, even the Grim Reaper is flabby.” – Dr. Frank W. Booth, University of Missouri-Columbia

Being fat and physically inactive now has a name — Sedentary Death Syndrome or “SeDS”. Approximately 2.5 million Americans will die prematurely in the next ten years due to SeDS, a number greater than all alcohol, guns, motor vehicles, illicit drug use and sexual behavior related deaths combined.

Research has identified SeDS as the second largest threat to public health (heart disease remains the number one cause of death for Americans) and is expected to add as much as $3 trillion to healthcare costs over ten years, more than twice the tax cut recently passed by the US Senate. Frank W. Booth, a professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia stated that he invented the term SeDS to emphasis his point that, in the United States, even the Grim Reaper is flabby.

Professor Booth’s goal is to make the public and the federal government pay more attention and spend more money on getting the average American to become more physically active. “We knew that there were approximately 250,000 people in the United States each year dying of inactivity-related diseases, but the phrase inactivity-related disease lacks pizzazz,” Booth said. Without a catchy name, the condition wasn’t getting enough attention, he said. “One day while I was out jogging, it hit me: Why not call it SeDS?”

Approximately two-thirds of American adults are currently overweight or obese according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Due to the fact that more than one-fourth of Americans are not physically active in their leisure time, obesity has doubled, and Type 2 diabetes (also known as adult-onset diabetes) has increased tenfold. Type 2 diabetes is a devastating disease that may lead to complications such as blindness, kidney failure, heart disease, circulatory problems that can result in amputation, and premature death.

Between 1982-1994, one third of all new cases were among people ages 10-19. The then-Surgeon General of the United States recently observed that, “We are raising the most overweight youngsters in American history.” Between l980-1994, obesity in American children increased 100 percent. Studies indicate that currently one in four children are obese. Not surprising, considering that the average American child spends 900 hours per year in school but 1,023 hours watching television, according to the TV-Turnoff Network.

The problem is made worse by the fact that more than one-third of all young people between the ages of 12-21 do not regularly participate in vigorous physical activity. Daily participation in high school physical education dropped from 42 percent in 1991 to 27 percent in 1997 according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Obesity has been connected to a variety of serious diseases and metabolic disorders to include Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease, gall bladder disease, and osteoarthritis to name a few. The economic toll obesity is placing on our National Health Care System is estimated to be in the neighborhood of 70-90 billion dollars a year1. The fact that obesity increases with age combined with the rapidly expanding elderly population suggests that the problems are likely to get even worse in the near future. Obesity is now recognized as one of the leading public health concerns facing our nation2. Research has shown that virtually all individuals will benefit from physical activity. The 1996 Surgeon General’s report on physical activity and health concluded that moderate levels of physical activity may greatly reduce the risk of developing or dying from heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, and high blood pressure2.

“Our bodies were designed to be physically active,” said Scott Gordon of East Carolina University. The trouble is that hard work, from farming to simply doing household chores without appliances, is no longer part of ordinary life for most people, he said. Gordon called for activity to be put back in. “In adults, this may mean planning exercise into your daily routine,” he said. “However, it may be as simple as taking the stairs instead of the elevator a couple of times a day.” Booth and his supporters said a special effort must be made to reach children, so they won’t turn fat and weak like their parents and, also like their parents, get sick and die early. “Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that ailments previously associated with the middle-aged and older population will now affect our children, and will serve to drastically decrease their quality of life,” said researcher Ron Gomes of the University of Delaware.

All Americans may incur a severe decline in their health due to consistent physical inactivity. Thirty-five known conditions are exacerbated by physical inactivity; they include: arthritis pain, arrhythmias, breast cancer, colon cancer, congestive heart failure, depression, gallstone disease, heart attack, hypertension, obesity, osteoporosis, peripheral vascular disease, respiratory problems, Type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea and stroke.

The Importance Of Physical Activity to Senior Citizens

In FY 2000, approximately 35 million Americans, or 13 percent of the population, were 65 and older. This number is expected to double to 70 million (20 percent of the population) by 2030. There are many health statistics that document the decline of overall health in both the male and female population. According to the CDC, more than one-third of the population age 50 and older is sedentary, and of those over 50 with hip fractures, 24 percent die within a year. Between 35-50 percent of women age 70-80 have difficulty with tasks such as climbing a flight of stairs.

Older adults who are physically active on a regular basis have better balance, cardiovascular health and joint mobility so they can retain their independent lifestyle longer. Participation in a regular exercise program is an effective method to reduce or prevent a number of functional declines associated with aging. Some of the benefits will:

  • Aid in weight loss, especially fat loss
  • Improve the immune system
  • Reduce the risk of heart disease
  • Lower the resting heart rate
  • Improve balance and coordination
  • Reduce the risk of developing colon and breast cancer
  • Improve your appearance Maintain or improve joint integrity
  • Increase and maintain bone mineral density thus preventing osteoporosis
  • Provide protection against injury
  • Help manage stress more effectively
  • Possibly help you sleep more restfully

 Is There a Solution?

Many Americans take pleasure in their inactivity, labeling themselves as “couch potatoes.” However, by digging out their butt roots from the couch and adding only three hours of brisk walking per week, they can decrease their risk of developing coronary heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes by 30 percent. Jogging or more vigorous exercise decreases the risk of Type 2 diabetes by more than 50 percent.

One of the challenges in the fight against obesity is to make physical activity more appealing and enjoyable to young children. An example of this concept is at Suntree Elementary School in Melbourne, Florida. This elementary school has made a commitment to introducing students to the positive benefits of exercise at a very early age.

“Introducing children to physical fitness is especially important because it teaches them to make healthy lifestyle choices. I am trying to promote the benefits of exercise verses the consequences of a sedentary lifestyle,” remarked Christina Nestor, a physical education teacher at Suntree. Nestor’s students have done so well with their exercise program that they were recently named “Brevard County Field Day Fitness Champs.” According to many of the Suntree students, physical fitness is a big part of their life and many of them exercise on a daily basis. Becca Duff, 7, remarked, “Exercise is fun and helps make you strong” while 7-year old Chris Schramn, commented, “I exercise every day by riding my bike and running to my friend’s house. Exercise helps you live longer and feel better. If you don’t exercise, you’ll end up looking like mashed potatoes.”

Providing enjoyable experiences is a potent strategy for increasing activity levels in youth, their attitude about the value of exercise, and ultimately long term health outcome4. Introducing and making exercise fun for young children may help them develop commitment and a positive attitude toward physical activity as they go through adolescents and adulthood.


According to Dr. Booth, “Physical inactivity, which can start during childhood, can lead to a wide range of diseases that coupled with poor diet, kill a quarter million people every year.” SeDS is a national health disaster that quickly needs to be addressed by lawmakers, the medical community, and the public. It can be addressed by taking massive action in the promotion of exercise through a variety of basic mechanisms such as television, radio, newspaper ads, and the internet, as well as by increasing funding for research that examines the underlying link between physical inactivity and disease.

Without question, research has shown that humans were designed to be physically active and that physical activity provides the mechanism to greatly enhance the quality of life, increase sense of well being, and help prevent disease. The following quote from the office of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports sums up the importance of physical activity: “By making the relatively small change from an inactive lifestyle to one that includes moderate but regular physical activity, even the most sedentary Americans can prevent disease and premature death and improve their quality of life.”

For more information on SeDs or Dr. Booth, log onto the website at


1. Colditz, G.A. (1999). Economic costs of obesity and inactivity. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 31, S663-S667.

2. President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports Research Digest, Series 3, No.12, Dec 2000

3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Center for Chronic disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 1996

4. Weiss, M.R. (1993). Children’s participation in physical activity: Are we having fun yet? Pediatric Exercise Science, 5, 205-209


Rob Wilkins, originally from Linden, New Jersey, is a Technical Sergeant in the US Air Force stationed at AFTAC, Patrick Air Force Base, Cocoa Beach, Florida. Wilkins is also a Special Assistant to the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB) and a recipient of the IFBB Gold Medal (Oct ’00). To contact Wilkins e-mail him at [email protected].


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