Health beat: A doctor's diagnosis: Couch Potatoitis

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 16, 2012 - 6:30 PM

If people hate to exercise and prefer to live like couch potatoes, should that count as a disease?

At least one Mayo Clinic physician thinks that's not such a bad idea.

Dr. Michael Joyner has even come up with a name for it: "Primary Deconditioning."

In an essay published this week, Joyner, an anesthesiologist and physiologist, argues that it's time to treat physical inactivity as the medical problem it is.

"Inactivity is now killing more people than smoking," said Joyner. It plays a role in the most devastating health problems of our time -- including diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

If you want to grab people's attention and make a difference, he said, "Make it an official diagnosis."

Joyner estimates that a lot of people would fit the definition. "My guess is you'd have somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of the population," he said. That may seem like the new normal; but it's quite the opposite, he said.

"This really wasn't a problem until recently" -- by which he means the last 50 years or so. "Until probably the 1950s or '60s, most people were pretty physically active."

The problem has crept up on us, the dark side of prosperity. "As soon as people start buying cars, as soon as there's a profusion of fast food, it takes off."

Joyner declines to say whether health insurers should start paying for gym memberships (though some already subsidize them). But he says many people are so out of shape they have to start small -- "light calisthenics" or simple stretching -- lest they give up in despair. If they start too hard, "they don't want to come back because they feel like they've just been in the NFL training camp."

The question of who pays for "treating" the new disease is up for grabs. But the medical consequences of literally doing nothing are mounting.

"Somebody's paying for it someplace," he said. In the big picture, "I think it would pay for itself."

maura.lerner@startribune.com

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