Americans have developed a global reputation as the most overstuffed and overweight people on the planet. While a recent UN report found that Mexico has actually taken over the title of the heaviest country by slightly edging the United States in the percentage of the population that qualifies as obese (32.8 percent to 31.8 percent), America has continued to see the number of overweight and obese citizens continue to swell.
For years poor diet and a willingness to spend hours in front of the television have been cited as one of the primary causes of America’s ever-expanding waistline. However, the results of a new study have found that another vice may also contribute to excessive weight gain- smartphone usage.
By studying the smartphone usage habits of college students, researchers from Kent State University have found that, like watching television, excessive smartphone use could significantly decrease an individual’s fitness levels and frequency of physical activity.
The results of this study were published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.
A Heavy Connection
Even though staring at a cell phone screen doesn’t carry the kind of negative association as that of a television, researchers warn that both can have very similar effects on a user’s health and weight.
The multifunctionality of smartphones provides users with the ability to make calls, send texts, surf the web, play games, watch movies and video clips, and listen to music. Researchers noted that all of these activities are basically sedentary, requiring little if any effort.
Despite smartphones being mobile devices, they actually tend to slow people down. Texting or searching a playlist while on the way to the bus stop causes people to walk more slowly than if they weren’t trying to divide their attention between two separate tasks. Going for a walk or jog in the park can frequently become interrupted by checking messages or scheduling dates for later in the day while walking past a scenic view now often requires taking the time to stop and post a photo to Facebook.
Before most people even realize it, they’ve stopped what they were doing to spend a few minutes lost in their phone while sitting at a park bench or leaning against a signpost.
Researchers have also noted that habits typically linked to watching television have started to become associated with smartphone usage as well. Studies have found that an individual’s time spent snacking increases in conjuncture with smartphone usage. Other studies have shown that using smartphones in bed can negatively impact how well a person sleeps at night, which coincides with research that has found links between sleep deprivation and poor dietary choices.
While the study looked primarily at the smartphone usage of 20-year-old college students, researchers worry about younger children whose relationships with smartphones begin at a much earlier age due to the prevalence of these types of devices.
As part of the study, researchers surveyed over 300 college students about their smartphone usage, amount of daily physical activity, and other leisure activities. Researchers had 49 of the students complete a treadmill test to determine their lung and heart fitness. Of the students who completed that treadmill test, those who reported high smartphone usage- some up to 14 hours a day- were less physically fit than those students who stated they used their phone only 1.5 hours a day on average. These findings took into account additional factors such as weight, percentage of body fat, age, and gender.
Participants who reported high-frequency smartphone users were more likely to lead sedentary lifestyles when compared to low-frequency users. Anecdotally, researchers also noted that high-frequency users may also have a tendency to use other types of digital media such as video games, computers, and television more often as well.
In light of this and other research, parents may find themselves torn about how much they allow their children to use smartphones in today’s digital age. However, researchers did caution that the results of this study did not show a clear cause and effect relationship between smartphone usage and weight gain. It’s possible that less active people, in general, use their phones more often than those who stay regularly active.
While potentially true, the results of these studies generate a good opportunity to reassess your own smartphone usage and as well as that of your children. There’s no denying the many benefits smartphones can have improving daily life, but striking the right balance make can an enormous impact on how healthy that life remains.