Health + Wellness

Why You May Be Sedentary Even if You Exercise an Hour a Day and How to Change It


This is an excerpted piece from a feature first published in Radiant No. 09, The Psyche Issue.

Our modern lives are, for many of us, predominantly spent sitting down. Labour-saving devices mean that very little physical exertion is required to get us through the day, and automated transport has all but eliminated the need to walk more than a few steps at a time.

These days it seems the less physical activity we do, the more we seek out even easier ways of doing things: we park our cars as close to our destinations as possible, phone or text rather than go to see people face-to-face and play video games instead of active games or sports for recreation.

In short, modern life is making us lazy — and worse, it may be making us sick.

To remedy sedentarism, many people turn to exercise, which is really just a replacement for the physical activity we no longer need to do. If automated transport didn’t exist, you’d walk or cycle everywhere. If you had to chop wood, hunt for food or build your own shelter, you’d have no need to go to the gym and lift weights. Spending less time sitting would eliminate much of the need to spend time stretching (prolonged sitting is a major cause of muscle tightness). Exercise is an artificial replacement for the physical activity that was unavoidable not so long ago.

Exercise also creates what is known as the “health halo.” Regular exercisers can even be more sedentary than non-exercisers because they believe that their workouts mean they don’t have to do anything else to be healthy.

And so, to offset your otherwise sedentary lifestyle, you go to the gym three times a week and log several hours of exercise. You lift weights and do cardio, losing weight and getting fit along the way. Good for you! However, new research suggests that regular exercise may not be enough to protect you from the dangers of an otherwise inactive lifestyle.

If you exercise for five hours a week, which is considered a good minimum target for fitness and weight loss, you may still be sedentary for as many as 163 hours a week. In other words, you’d only actually be active about 3 percent of the week. In contrast, if you had a manual job, had to walk or cycle everywhere, or were otherwise less sedentary, you would be active for closer to 35 percent of the week. That’s a huge difference.

Exercise is definitely beneficial and offers some protection against the dangers of an otherwise sedentary lifestyle, but as you can see, in terms of volume and duration exercise cannot compare to regular physical activity. Simply put, while your regular workouts are beneficial, even if you work out regularly you probably aren’t doing enough physical activity to offset a predominantly inactive lifestyle.

Exercise also creates what is known as the “health halo.” Regular exercisers can even be more sedentary than non-exercisers because they believe that their workouts mean they don’t have to do anything else to be healthy. Their tiring workouts often mean that they try and save up energy for their gym sessions. Needless to say, this merely compounds the problem rather than providing a solution!

Unfortunately, as technology has advanced, so too has our reliance on it. Unless you are prepared to move out into the countryside and take up a more self-sufficient lifestyle, you are unlikely to encounter much in the way of naturally-occurring physical activity. If you want to be more active — and you really should if you care about your health — you’ll need to seek it out.

While you may be tempted to exercise even more in order to be more active, this is not always the best solution. Exercise is by its very nature intense and tiring; there is only so much you can do. The truth is, physical activity doesn’t have to be challenging to be beneficial. Your heart and breathing rate will still increase, just not as noticeably, and your muscles should not suffer any real signs of fatigue. Regular physical activity should complement your exercise program, not detract from it.

Physical activity is not the same as exercise, which is why it’s often given the acronym NEPA, short for Non-Exercise Physical Activity. NEPA is any form of physical activity that gets you up off your butt and moving your body. It does not have to be structured, and it can be accumulated in bursts throughout the day.

There are dozens of daily opportunities to clock up NEPA minutes during the day. Here are a few to consider:

Sitting is arguably one of the unhealthiest things that you can do on a daily basis. If you spend a lot of time sitting, you are risking your health, fitness and posture, so try to simply stand up more. Use a standing desk, stand up whenever you take a phone call, walk to your colleague’s desk instead of calling or emailing them, try “walking meetings” rather than the usual boardroom setting, get up and change the TV channel by hand instead of using the remote — in other words, look for any opportunity you can find to get up off your butt and stand up!

Walking is arguably the most accessible form of NEPA. You don’t need any special equipment and can do it almost anywhere and anytime. There are many opportunities for walking:

  • Walk to and/or from work or school
  • Meet up and walk with friends rather than chatting on the phone or at the pub
  • Walk your dog
  • Walk with your kids
  • Walk after dinner instead of watching TV
  • Walk during your lunch break
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Park on the far side of carparks and walk the extra distance from your destination
  • Get off the bus/train a little earlier and walk the rest of the way
  • Make family walks in the park part of your weekend routine
  • Ban car use for journeys less than one mile

There are dozens of daily opportunities to accumulate NEPA minutes during the day. Here are a few more actions for you to consider:

  • Wash your car by hand
  • Cycle for transport or pleasure
  • Carry your shopping in a basket instead of using a grocery cart
  • Play sports with your kids
  • Play active games with your kids such as hide-and-seek or tag
  • Use an interactive video game consul such as Xbox Kinect rather than controller-based games
  • Do chores around the home such as cleaning and repairs
  • Do some gardening or tidy your yard
  • Rearrange your furniture
  • Do some decorating
  • Volunteer to help out a less able neighbour, friend or relative and do some of their physically demanding tasks, such as sweeping up leaves or clearing snow.

Because NEPA should not be overly tiring — it should actually enhance your energy levels and speed up your recovery from exercise — there is no real upper limit to how much you can do in a day. It all comes down to your lifestyle and how much you can realistically fit in. However, as most of us work best when we have specific targets to focus on, aim to accumulate around 60 minutes per day of NEPA. This can include any type of physical activity; just choose things you enjoy.

Exercise is beneficial and can have a profound effect on your body, and you should definitely use exercise to strengthen your muscles, develop your fitness and control your weight. However, if you want to be as healthy as possible, you also need to include general physical activity in your lifestyle. You may need to seek out opportunities to be more active, but the potential benefits to your health will be well worth the effort.

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