Do you feel like you have your health “covered” because you follow a regular exercise plan? It is true that exercise is a wonderful antidote to things like aging, depression, some cancers, weight gain, and digestive problems! However, a daily exercise regime can only do so much, especially if you live a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, an inactive lifestyle increases your body’s resistance to the benefits of exercise. So, if you spend most of your day sitting around (even if you are mentally working very hard from behind a desk!), read on for ways to sprinkle small bits of exercise throughout your day. By doing so, you will reap more of a reward from your diligent exercise routine.
WHAT EXACTLY IS A SEDENTARY LIFESTYLE AND WHAT ARE THE HEALTH IMPLICATIONS?
Simply put, a sedentary lifestyle is one in which there is very little physical activity and a lot of sitting or laying around. Sedentary activities include sitting or reclining for long periods of time, which includes time spent:
- Watching television
- Working behind a desk, or any job in which you are sitting for the majority of the time
- Lounging around and relaxing
- Traveling and/or commuting, including time spent on public transportation and driving
Even if you exercise regularly, you still may be living a sedentary lifestyle if you are inactive outside of scheduled exercise. Why are these seemingly harmless activities such a cause for concern? Well, there are multiple health implications of inactivity, and they are not pretty. For example, a sedentary lifestyle is linked to the following negative effects:
- Early death
- Obesity and unwanted weight gain
- Heart disease
- Reduced benefits from exercise
It is precisely this last point that I am concerned about. Unfortunately, many people mistakenly believe that their well-meaning efforts to counteract a sedentary lifestyle through exercise is enough. While you should definitely continue to exercise, you do need to know that this is only one part of being healthy through activity; addressing your sedentary lifestyle falls into a distinctly separate category.
FOUR STUDIES THAT DEBUNK THE “EXERCISE IS ENOUGH” MYTH
There are a number of studies revealing that even an hour of exercise a day is not enough to combat a sedentary lifestyle. Again, while essential, delegated time for physical activity is only one part of the puzzle. In order to completely understand this idea, I invite you to take a look at the following studies.
1. Sedentary Behaviors and Subsequent Health Outcomes in Adults
In this systematic review of studies published between 1996 and 2011, researchers analyzed the data of over forty-five articles related to sedentary behaviours and the successive negative health outcomes for adults. These studies included those published in reputable online health websites such as PubMed, MEDLINE, and WebMD.
The conclusion? That a sedentary lifestyle increases your risk of a multitude of diseases, “independent of physical activity.” The correlated diseases include cardiovascular disease, earlier mortality rate, and diabetes (including gestational diabetes). The specific cancers that correlate with a stationary lifestyle encompass ovarian, endometrial, and colon cancers.
2. Too Little Exercise and Too Much Sitting: Inactivity Physiology and the Need for New Recommendations on Sedentary Behavior
This study from the Journal of Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports supports the findings of the first study. It also points out that too much time spent sitting or reclining has negative health implications, regardless of designated exercise time. In other words, the emphasis on meeting the minimum requirement of 30 minutes of exercise at least five days a week is distracting people from the additional problem of living a sedentary lifestyle.
If your idea of unwinding is “zonking out” in front of the television, consider these grave findings: in a group of healthy adults who reported exercising at least 150 minutes per week, there was a huge connection between the amount of time spent watching television and a slew of health problems. These include harmful effects on systolic blood pressure, waist circumference, and 2-hour plasma glucose levels in both men and women. Interestingly, women alone experienced detrimental effects on their cholesterol, plasma glucose, and triglyceride levels.
3. Inactivity Induces Resistance to the Metabolic Benefits Following Acute Exercise
the time outside of your scheduled exercise times? Be careful of a false sense of safety. According to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, a sedentary lifestyle makes your body resistant to the benefits of exercise.
To be specific, intense exercise is great for reducing your risk for heart disease because it helps prevent insulin sensitivity, glucose tolerance, and postprandial lipemia. However, this study reports that when people spend thirteen or more hours sitting daily, even acute exercise is unsuccessful in improving these three areas.
4. Physical Inactivity, Sedentary Behavior, and Chronic Disease
This article is interesting because it draws a distinction between the terms “sedentary behavior” and “physical inactivity.” To summarize, the term “physical inactivity” refers to a lack of consistent, designated time spent exerting energy using the skeletal muscle to perform bodily movement. Dancing, jogging, kayaking, and yoga are all great ways to be physically active. In Canada, physical inactivity is responsible for an estimated 3.7% of healthcare costs.
In contrast, the phrase “sedentary behaviour” means any behaviour that involves a lot of sitting and very little energy expenditure. Both sedentary behaviour and physical inactivity are linked to increased risk factors for heart disease, weight gain, and obesity.
In addition to defining these as two distinct terms, researchers emphasize the truth that physical activity, while distinct from the problem of engaging in a sedentary lifestyle, is still beneficial. Put differently, do not be discouraged if you exercise but do not move much outside of that! There are easy ways to fix this problem.
MY JOB REQUIRES ME TO SIT AROUND ALL DAY… WHAT CAN I DO?
I am not sharing these studies with you to scare you! Rather, I want to encourage you to continue your exercise routine and add small bouts of physical activities to your daily routine. If you spend a lot of time sitting around, you are not alone.
In one reputable study of 8,000 middle-aged adults, the average person was sedentary for about 12 hours a day. In other words, most people spent about 77% of their waking hours being inactive. The good news is that you can make simple lifestyle changes to add some activity throughout your day.
For example, you can:
- Walk, jog, or bike to work instead of driving or taking public transportation.
- Invite your colleagues to chat with you on a walk rather than sitting down for a meeting.
- If you work from home, take breaks and get light physically active chores out of the way every few hours, like folding and putting away laundry or emptying the dishwasher.
- Stuck behind a desk at the office? Set your timer and go for a brief walk around the block every couple of hours. If the weather is inclement, you can walk up and down a few flights of stairs.
- When watching television, make it a habit to do jumping jacks, walk around the room, or do a few quick sun salutations during commercial breaks. (And if Netflix nudges you with the “Still Watching?” message, it is definitely time to take a brief break for movement!)
- Rather than sit while talking on the phone, stand or walk as you talk.
- At home with the kids? Young children probably keep you on your feet already, but you should still keep tabs on the amount of time you spend sitting together. Make a point to do something active, like playing outside together, every few hours. If your kids have devised their own unique games that you usually decline to join because of the energy required, use this designated time to indulge them for ten minutes.
- Add some variety to your family gatherings by canoeing, kayaking, hiking, or playing a soccer game together.
- Instead of sitting at your desk, use a standing desk.
By punctuating your sedentary time with brief periods of activity, you will increase the beneficial effects of your regular exercise routine. In fact, mindfully adding movement throughout sedentary times is linked to a reduced risk for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and obesity.
In addition to the physical health benefits of getting up and moving throughout the day, you will probably notice an enhanced ability to focus and may even notice an increased sex drive in the evening! Furthermore, exercise lowers your cortisol levels. This translates to reduced stress and natural, sustainable relief from depression and/or anxiety. Healthy cortisol levels also help prevent stubborn problems like weight gain, acne, chronic fatigue, and high blood pressure.
CREATE AN INDIVIDUALIZED FITNESS PLAN AT THE DEMPSTER CLINIC- CENTER FOR FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE
It can be overwhelming to do a complete “makeover” to your sedentary lifestyle all at once. And certain jobs and life situations are certainly harder to work with than others! But remember that you do not have to do it all at once. For example, instead of making a sweeping declaration that you will bike to work every day when you are used to driving, try making a more realistic goal of biking to work two days a week in the beginning. You can gradually increase this number as your body and mind adjust to this small change.
If you are unsure of where to start or have yet to establish an exercise plan that works for you, I am here to help you. At The Dempster Clinic- Center for Functional Medicine in Toronto, I will partner with you to create a custom plan based on your unique, individual needs and lifestyle.
A Complimentary 15-minute Discovery Session is available for all prospective patients. This session can take place over the phone or at the clinic in person, depending on your preferences. It provides an opportunity for you to learn more about the services I offer and how they can help you.
I hope to hear from you soon! Your best health awaits.
Dr. John Dempster, ND
The Dempster Clinic- Center for Functional Medicine