You’ve probably heard that sitting is the new smoking.
It’s a neat sound byte, right? Very snappy — but what does it really mean?
Well, we are the most sedentary humans that have ever lived on this planet.
Because so many of our jobs have moved inside, we spend huge chunks of our time sitting down at desks — often upwards of 8 to 10 hours a day.
And then when we get home, we spend 2 or 3 hours lying on the couch in front of the TV.
But the human body is not designed for this kind of low-movement lifestyle.
Our bodies evolved to walk, run, jump, climb, swim, carry, squat, pull, push, lift, throw and catch. We needed all these types of movement to hunt and gather food, to build homes, to work the earth, to defend ourselves and to raise kids into effective adults.
And while the world we live in has changed dramatically since we were hunter-gatherers, we still need all those types of movement.
The ability to move healthily in a variety of ways means we can…
- walk our kids to school
- run in a basketball game with friends
- bend over to pick up the newspaper
- extend back to turn off the light at night
- squat down to tie our shoes
- lunge to throw a ball
- rotate to reach across to put on a seat belt
- push to put groceries on the top shelf in our kitchen
- pull to row a boat
On the most basic level fitness, or exercise, just means movement. And movement is a practice. We move to look good, but we also move for health.
Movement has a profound impact on our sense of wellbeing, our physical capabilities, and just as importantly, our biological age.
And when we don’t practice all these innate movements on a regular basis, we slowly lose the ability to do them, and our health starts to decline in a totally preventable way.
For example, after childhood, many people lose the ability to do one of the most basic and most beneficial movements — the seated squat position.
Why does this matter?
The point of movement is to make you adaptable. Being adaptable means that you can participate in all types of activities, in the spur of the moment, without getting injured.
The ultimate goal of movement is to give you more freedom in your life. The freedom of a life without pain. The freedom of being able to stay active and participate in all the activities that you enjoy.
Most of us know that regular exercise is important — but this post is not about the benefits of working out.
What many people don’t know is that even doing a daily workout will not counteract the negative effects of being sedentary throughout the day, and that’s what we’re going to focus on here.
Many people think they can just exercise their 150 minutes a week and cancel out their sedentary behavior…
But it just doesn’t work like that. I know, I know — it’s a bummer.
If you aren’t moving your body enough throughout the day, you can’t exercise your way out of increased risk for chronic disease.
What Does It Mean To Be Sedentary?
Sedentary behavior is any time spent sitting, reclining, or lying during waking hours. If you sit for 8 hours a day at a desk, that’s sedentary time. Two hours lying on the couch in front of the TV at night? That’s also sedentary time. Same with driving.
A sedentary lifestyle — even if you are exercising regularly — is one of the leading risk factors for all kinds of lifestyle disease: heart disease, diabetes, cognitive decline and chronic illness.
And of course, if you have other lifestyle risk factors — such as being a smoker, eating a diet high in sugar and processed food, high stress, or obesity, then the risks of being sedentary are significantly compounded.
Here are some good guidelines to help reduce sedentary behavior:
- Limit inactivity to less than 5 to 8 hours daily
- Get up every hour during the workday: stretch, go for a walk, do some type of activity
- Determine your average daily step count and increase it by 500 steps per day each week until you reach your goal.
When I’m assessing someone’s physical fitness I’m looking at two things: how much they move in a day and their exercise routines.
Basic daily movement always comes first — walking, stairs, changing positions from seating to standing, playing with your kids or pets, stretching and so on.
Exercise routines are obviously the focused sessions where you are training your body in a particular way: strength training, developing balance, flexibility, and mobility, and creating cardiovascular endurance.
There is no magical step count number that offsets these risks, but walking about 5 miles a day throughout the day is a good goal for most healthy people. This is approximately 10,000 steps.
But it’s most important to assess how much you get now and work on increasing it from whatever your starting point is, and then continuing to monitor your progress.
If you struggle to reach that step count, here are a few tips to help you start bumping your daily number:
- Use the stairs
- Park in the back of the parking lot
- Use a standing desk
- Set up movement timers to move every hour
- Plan walks to places that you love (grab a coffee or go to the bookstore)
- Listen to audiobooks or podcasts while taking a walking lunch
- Schedule hikes in interesting areas
- Meet a friend for a walk instead of a coffee or drink
- Use the bathroom on a different floor in your building
- Have a list of basic movements that you do throughout the day — squat, plank, hang, pushups and so on. Schedule them into the day at specific times.
Now, as I said earlier, you have to have both daily movement and exercise.
I also think of exercise as something to do daily — even if some days it’s just 5 minutes of squats or kettlebell swings. Thinking about something daily cements it as a habit and creates a compounding effect of benefits over time.
And if you’re not sure where to start with a daily exercise practice, Dr. Peter Attia’s exercise pillars for longevity provide a great framework for creating an effective fitness program. This approach involves participating in exercises that build stability, strength, aerobic efficiency, and anaerobic peak (short burst activity) throughout the week.
Remember, though, that change is most effective when you do it slow and steady. It’s got to be sustainable, so set yourself realistic expectations about what you can tackle at any given time, and work your way up gradually.
The best plan is the one you stick to, but you gotta have a plan.
Remember: if you want to maintain a healthy metabolism as you age — you must continue moving.
If you want to maintain a healthy brain and mood — you must continue moving.
If you want to be able to maintain the ability to take care of yourself as you age (and avoid the nursing home) — you must continue moving.
If you’d like to explore how I can help you create a plan that’s going to be effective and sustainable for your specific lifestyle, click here to find out more about working with me.