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November 18, 2018

Doing Nothing is Harmful to Your Health

Doing nothing for long periods of time causes harm.
Doing nothing for long periods of time causes harm.

It is very difficult to do nothing. Even when people are at a loss on what to do, there is always a temptation, often yielded, to do anything but leave things as they are.

Part of this need to do something is common sense; because even when nothing is being done, something is always happening. A car for example, parked and not driven for a while, is enveloped by a coat of dust. Within the engine space, creatures find a home, cobwebs grow. The various oils, no longer circulating in the engine, settle at the bottom with debris.

The day comes when the motor is required to run again, and even if it was working well a few months before, it requires specialised attention to move. The solution to avoiding expensive mechanic’s bills seems to keep the engine running all the time. Yet there is another instinct where people complain of a fast-moving world, information overload, too much work and the desire to ‘rest’, the implication being, ‘I wish I had time to just do nothing’! So where is the balance?

The average human being requires six to eight hours of sleep a day. For some people, sleep is an adventure, they wake up and recount dreams in full colour; others it is one black hole, head on pillow, head under shower.. What is not normal is when a person has to sleep or lie prone for more than nine hours a day. Africans living before colonisation knew this. Among the nomadic communities especially those rearing livestock, bed rest was not a viable option with the family constantly moving.

Among those who cultivated, farmers were mainly subsistence relying on family labour to make ends meet, therefore the family could not afford to lose labour for prolonged periods of time. In the western world, families were large too until about a century ago and so taking time off to rest was not an option. However as these countries became prosperous and houses became less congested, the option of bed rest as part of medical treatment emerged and was common practice until World War II.

During that war, it was noticed that injured soldiers who were mobilised quickly when fresh casualties had arrived, did better than those who stayed in beds for a long time. And so began an effort by the medical establishment to not have patients admitted to hospital for too long. Today one of the biggest fears that a surgeon has after operating, is the patient who does not get up and start walking. There are several reasons why it is important to keep moving.

The moment you lie down, physiological changes start to occur. The first is that the heart no longer has to pump blood to the height of the head and circulate fluid all the way from the big toe; everything is horizontal.

While that sounds like a good thing, it is bad for several reasons. First, the heart is a muscle, which has to be active for it to work well. The less it is used the weaker and flabbier it grows, just like the muscles in the legs and elsewhere when not used. The second problem is that sluggish fluid begins to accumulate in the abdomen and chest cavities, just like matatus block roads when waiting for passengers, this is fluid idle without work or incentive to move. Research suggests that lying down for more than 24 hours leads to about one litre of fluid moving from the legs to the chest and abdomen. This affects a person’s breathing too, so they now have shallow breath with an increasing risk of a respiratory infection. If the bed rest is prolonged a few days to weeks, then certain parts of the body get too much pressure and sores develop, especially where there is an underlying bone. Because blood is not circulating, the immune system is also not moving, so when a sore forms, bacteria have a field day. Worst of all, many people who are bedridden also develop mental depression. Healing all this then becomes a case for the doctor and the nurse.

It seems that whether we talk of a person who is alive, or a mechanical thing, doing nothing for long periods causes harm. In our context today, as more people become affluent and the number of persons living in a house reduces, there are more sofas and beds for people to ‘rest’, especially if they have had a ‘hard day’ sitting in the office. For the middle class, to stay healthy the rest we need is not to do nothing on the couch, but to change the something that we are doing, perhaps reach home and cook dinner for ourselves and wash the dishes before bed?

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