Why Exercise Might Not Counteract All That Sitting
Maybe you sit at your job or volunteer gig most of the day, and sneak in a few Netflix binges every week — but you exercise regularly, so it all balances out, right? Unfortunately, those gym rounds or barre classes might not be doing the trick, according to the American Physiological Society.
The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, and several studies have shown that non-exercisers face numerous health risks compared to those who make exercise a priority. But sitting may throw a wrench into the works.
Researcher Peter Katzmarzyk of Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., notes that even those who meet the recommendations for activity may face chronic health issues if they’re sedentary during the rest of the day.
Fortunately, there’s good news: Replacing just some sitting time with light activity can begin to counteract the risks. Consider these strategies for sneaking in some "get-off-your-butt" time every day:
Create a Standing Habit
For most people, sitting becomes such a major part of life because that’s what we’re taught to do. We sit all through school, sit to travel from place to place, sit to eat, and sit to be entertained. Many times, we have to rally ourselves to get moving.
But it’s possible to change some of that programming by creating triggers for standing and walking. For example, you can decide that every time you get a phone call, you’ll either stand up or go for a walk as you’re talking. Stand at the kitchen counter when you eat breakfast or read a magazine.
Build in the Time
Overscheduling brings its own health risks related to stress, so you can achieve a two-for-one health boost by freeing up more time in your schedule, and taking longer for every task or errand.
For instance, park at the far end of the parking lot when you go shopping or to appointments. Walk to the second-closest coffee shop. Always take the stairs. Bring in your groceries one bag at a time. See these activities as a chance to be more mindful and de-stress, while getting more exercise in at the same time.
Can’t sit still, because you’re always tapping your toes? Great, keep doing that. And if that doesn’t describe you, it’s time to start. A recent 2016 study, published in The American Journal of Physiology Heart and Circulatory Physiology, hit upon fidgeting. It found that fidgeting — especially if you’re moving your legs and feet — can be incredibly useful for fending off the kind of muscular immobility that comes with sitting.
When leg muscles are unused for hours at a time, they don’t pull sugar from the blood, the researchers noted. That can lead to a rise in blood sugar, increasing the risk of weight gain and diabetes. Also, blood flow gets sluggish, and that can negatively affect blood pressure. But lower-body fidgeting counteracts these risks, the researchers found. So, make it your new thing to keep your legs active, even when the rest of you is sitting still.
Of course, there will always be long stretches of sedentary time when walking or standing isn’t an option — flight attendants won’t appreciate you turning a cross-country flight into an airborne 5K — but you can still exercise even when you’re sitting, if you use isometrics.
This involves contracting and relaxing individual muscles or muscle groups. For instance, you might tighten your right calf for 10 seconds, then release, followed by your left. Similar to fidgeting, this gives your muscles more movement and work, even when you’re stuck in a seat.
Celebrate the Commercials
Rather than seeing ads as interruptions to your favorite show, see them as opportunities. The average commercial break is between 90 to 120 seconds, which is just enough time to do 20 jumping jacks, to jog in place or to dance like a fool to whatever music the commercial is playing. Learn a very short yoga sequence of three or four poses, and practice them at least once an hour when the commercials come on.
What you do isn’t as important as taking the time to do it. Commit to never sitting for a commercial again, and consider fun activities that would take only that short amount of time. Best of all, these high-intensity exercises have been shown to be incredibly helpful for increasing endurance and overall fitness levels while reducing health risks.
No matter what tactics you use, it’s helpful to think of movement as a default, breaking the familiar habit of sitting. Turning even simple, everyday actions into a bit of activity now, could pay off in major health dividends for the future.