Scientists know how quarks behave and how distant starts explode so it’s a bit embarrassing that, until recently, they haven’t managed to agree on how to measure human rest. Sedentary behavior remained a linguistic weak spot in academic language because it’s hard to talk about what a person who is doing nothing is actually up to. What is the definition of “lying down” or “standing?” or “Reclining”? Until last week, it was a somnambulant shrug. No longer.
Enter the Terminology Consensus Project, an ambitious effort to convince scientists to agree on the definitions of seemingly simple terms, such as “sitting”. After much deliberation, the team has published a study, coauthored by 84 scientists from 20 countries, that will finally arm us with the scientific jargon to use when telling our kids to get off their butts and play outside.
“There is an urgent need for clear, common and accepted terminology worldwide to facilitate the interpretation and comparison of research,” said coauthor Mark Tremblay of the University of Ottawa, in a statement. “Our hope is that these will reduce confusion and advance research related to sedentary behaviour and, ultimately, promote healthy active living.”
Lest we consider the development of standardized terms a reluctant exercise in nomenclature, the American Heart Association recently published an advisory that linked cardiovascular disease to sedentary behavior that probably would have been helpful if anyone knew what that meant. Tremblay and colleagues scanned the literature and discovered no less than 13 conflicting measurements of “sedentary behavior” on the books. Definitions ranged from the relatively vague “distinct class of behaviors characterized by low energy expenditure” to the inscrutable “a very low energy expenditure (1.0-1.8 metabolic equivalents) performed mainly in a sitting or supine position”.
Something had to be done. So the Terminology Consensus Project, which is a thing, got to work, conducting a literature review to identify key terms in sedentary behavior research then submitting multiple waves of draft definitions to experts in the field. Feedback from nearly 100 scientists eventually shaped painstakingly specific definitions for a handful of terms, including: sedentary behavior (“any waking behavior characterized by an energy expenditure less than or equal to 1.5 metabolic equivalents, while in a sitting, reclining, or lying posture”), standing (“maintaining an upright position while supported by one’s feet”), sitting (“one’s weight is supported by one’s buttocks rather than one’s feet and…the back is upright”), lying (“a horizontal position on a supporting surface”), and reclining (“a body position between sitting and lying”).
Besides providing dads with more specific ways to nag their kids (“Instead of playing video games all day, you should be expending 1.5 metabolic equivalents!”), Tremblay says that the study fills a void in health and wellness research. “These consensus definitions will help scientists and practitioners navigate and understand the rapidly evolving field of sedentary behaviour research,” he said. “And may facilitate future research exploring ways to alter behaviors to improve health.”