The Engineer as an Enabler of Health and Wellness

The U.S. National Physical Activity Plan sets forth recommendations for engineers to help implement

12 June 2015

Photo: iStockphoto

Technology has revolutionized the workplace, however it has also contributed to a sedentary and obese population globally by removing physical activity from daily life. Today’s job market is competitive and stressful so, to achieve personal and career success, emotional and physical resilience is essential. Physical inactivity is a known risk factor for chronic diseases and can contribute to early mortality. Without active movement, body tissues―including our brain―deteriorate, resulting in impaired performance and disease.

Responding to this growing concern, some 240 experts gathered at the Ronald Reagan Building and the International Trade Center in Washington, D.C., in February for the 2015 National Physical Activity Plan Congress. This diverse group presented state-of-the-art, evidence-based research to help update the existing National Physical Activity Plan. The plan’s vision is that everyone will live, work, and play in environments that facilitate and support physically active lifestyles leading to improved health, the prevention of diseases and disabilities, and enhance the quality of life. Although it is focused on the United States, the group’s discussions and conclusions are applicable to citizens and engineering professionals of all countries. Here I presented my own health and wellness applied research and participated in focus groups based on my presentation “Sports for Global Citizenship” from the 2014 IEEE International Humanitarian Technology Conference

You may now be asking yourself what does this have to do with IEEE? The short answer is everything. IEEE is an important global participant in health and wellness. Our members create and maintain health and wellness technology that comply with the highest technical standards of performance in devices leading to improving people’s lives. Engineers design infrastructures and are working effectively to change communities in ways that will enable every citizen of the world to be physically active and realize a healthy lifestyle. How are we doing this?

Leading the way are members of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology, and the IEEE Smart Cities Initiative. Members of many other IEEE societies, councils, and special interest groups through their scope of activities also contribute to realizing the vision of the National Physical Activity Plan. The plan itself is comprised of recommendations organized into eight societal sectors: Public health; health care; education; transportation; land use and community design; parks, recreation, fitness and sports; business and industry; volunteer and non-profit organizations; and mass media.

A brief selection of the plan’s strategies and tactics that involve engineering to realize the sectors’ recommendations include:

  1. Maintaining an ethically and culturally diverse multidisciplinary public health network by experts in engineering, physical activity, and health who develop, monitor, protect, set standards, and promote the public’s health.
  2. Facilitating the early intervention and prevention of disease with the use of electronically tracked health care and physical activity records that are secure and universally accessible by authorized health care providers. This includes using technology to monitor a person’s health status at home, particularly the elderly.
  3. Developing educational programs to help people understand the importance of lifelong physical activity and its relationship to personal and career success. Continuing advocacy for increasing investment in research and development in the engineering aspects of health and wellness and incorporating them into engineering design.
  4. Designing urban communities through using land and modes of transportation in such a way that they promote a physically active lifestyle. Examples include policies that determine the width of sidewalks and the safety of bike lanes, coupled with walkability that makes it convenient for people to walk instead of drive to a coffee shop or grocery store.
  5. Enhancing parks, recreation, fitness, and sports infrastructures to allow convenient accessibility for all, regardless of circumstance. This can include modifying hiking trails for wheel chair accessibility as well as engineers designing new types of wheelchairs that have the robustness to safely travel in such setting.
  6. Ergonomically designing the workplace to encourage regular physical activity, and discouraging sitting for long periods of time while maintaining productivity.
  7. Recognizing the importance of volunteerism. For example, supporting youth and elder athletics through sponsorship, coaching, and leading by example.
  8. Developing communication technology that has the power to influence individual behaviors and societal attitudes. This could mean consistent and authoritative effective mass communication messages mandated through federal legislation for changing attitudes to a physical active lifestyle.

On a personal note, my physical activity has increased dramatically since my 55th birthday when I chose early retirement for the simple reason that many of my peers and close friends had chronic diseases. I am proud to report, included among other achievements, that I successfully completed eleven Ironman Distance Triathlons, which consists of a 3.86-kilometer swim, a 180.25-km bicycle ride, and a 42.2 km marathon. The bottom line is that IEEE members like me, through the professionalism and diversity of the organization’s programs and members, have an important role for “engineering” physical activity into our lives and communities.

Terrance Malkinson is an IEEE Senior Life Member, an educator, and communications specialist. He is currently an international correspondent for IEEE-USA Insight, an associate editor for IEEE Canadian Review, managing editor of IEEE TEMS Leader News Magazine, and a member of the editorial advisory board for IEEE The Institute.  He has 530 earned peer-reviewed publications, spoken internationally, and leads numerous applied research projects, mentors post-secondary students, and is a philanthropist donor of student-athlete awards.

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