Telework, making things worse
Anne Sophie Goninet

PARIS — Are you sitting down? Probably. Yes, there are new studies that show the collateral health effects (beyond the virus itself) of COVID-19 and the rolling lockdowns include serious maladies linked to an increase in the sedentary lifestyle. For millions of people suddenly forced to telework and spend more time sitting down, and far less time outside the home, there are a range of negative effects on our health that can potentially be catastrophic across society as a whole.

The risks: Some researchers say the lack of physical activity is the hidden new health risk of this century.

• When inactive, we don't stimulate our muscles as much as we should, but we also tend to eat more, which means that our body, instead of eliminating calories, accumulates them.

• "All the nutrients go directly into the body fat and with a lack of sufficient blood pressure in the arteries of the lower limbs, arteries are not stimulated enough." "When you stay seated, the numerous muscles in your thighs and calves are completely inactive," Martine Duclos, a professor and hospital practitioner in Clermont-Ferrand, France, told Les Echos.

• This leads to a higher risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, as well cardiovascular disease and cancers, but also higher risk of depression and lower cognitive function.

Getting worse: Before the coronavirus, an increasing number of people were already spending several hours every day sitting down, whether it was in an office, in transportation, when eating, in front of a screen … And with telework, stay-at-home measures and the inability to take part in certain sports, this trend has gotten worse. In France, the National Academy of Medicine even published a statement at the end of March to warn citizens that "lockdown doesn't mean inactivity."

• French people spent on average around 6 hours, 30 minutes sitting down per day during the spring lockdown, a study conducted by Santé Publique France found.

• 61% of people surveyed said they spend more time inactive during this period and at least a third adding they actually spend more than 7 hours sitting down each day.

• This was especially true for young adults, people who teleworked and those who live in urban environments. The country counted around 250,000 teleworkers before the pandemic and around 3 million during the lockdown in the spring 2020, France Culture reports.

California step count: A research study led by a medical team from the University of California in the U.S. reviewed more than 19 million daily step count measurements registered by smartphones in 187 countries and found that physical activity dropped sharply in several countries after lockdown measures were implemented — some as much as 50%.

• For instance, Italy saw a 48.7 % decrease in steps, 30 days after the lockdown was declared at the beginning of March.

Don't forget the kids: Sedentary activities such as watching TV, playing video games and browsing on the Internet have progressed from 22.6 hours/week on average before the lockdown to 33.3 hours/week in May and June 2020 for children between 6 and 18 years old, according to another study by Harris Interactive in France. More worrying, around 14% of young people didn't practice any sport during the lockdown as some "didn't even go out all for three months', "finding themselves with a deficit of their capacities," professor Jean-François Toussaint, director of research institute IRMES, told 20 Minutes.

Photo: Annie Spratt

A way out: Fortunately, there are solutions to curb this trend and it doesn't necessarily involve running a marathon every week. There is actually a scientific difference between being sedentary and inactive. "We can be active 30 minutes every day or 150 minutes every week, but also sit down 10 hours every day. It's possible to be both sedentary and very active. In English we call them ‘active couch potatoes'," Jean-Philippe Chaput, professor and researcher at the University of Ottawa, told Radio Canada.

• The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSPE) has recently published 24-hour movement guidelines that include recommendations on sedentary behavior such as limiting sedentary time to 8 hours or less and breaking up a long period of staying seated by getting up every 30 minutes to walk for 2 minutes. "We've seen that just simply reducing or breaking up your sedentary time can lower some risk factors for heart disease and diabetes," Travis Saunders, an assistant professor in applied human sciences at the University of Prince Edward Island, told CBC.

• A team from the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin also recommends doing five four-second "sprints' on an exercise bike every hour over the course of 8 hours as a way to offset the harms of a very sedentary life. This kind of physical activity proved to increase fat burning by almost half compared with measurements taken after spending 8 hours sitting.

• If you telework it is also recommended to stand up while working on your computer, in your kitchen or by buying a standing desk, install a DeskCycle or sit on a stability ball. It is also better not to use any screen in the bedroom and watch one's diet.

A role in immunity? The COVID-19 pandemic could prove to be useful to conduct more studies on physical inactivity and measure the effects of sedentary lives have on our health but also allow us to draw guidelines for the next lockdown crisis. This summer, an international team of scientists and researchers called for an ambitious research agenda: The authors believe that physical activity has a major role to play in combating the virus by improving immune functioning as well as enhancing the efficacy of vaccines.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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