Athlete Sitting At Desk

Think you’re not sedentary because you exercise? Even athletes often aren’t active enough. Here’s a simple strategy for greater fitness without added workouts.

You’re dedicated to working out. You exercise for an hour or more each morning, two hours on Sunday. Yet, still you may be inactive.

How can some athletes be sedentary? That’s simple — while many highly trained athletes have a high energy expenditure, others don’t.  This is due to reduced physical activity during non-training time.

With more available conveniences, from motorized transportation, mechanized equipment, domestic appliances, TV and video, combined with the reductions of manual work, and a lot of sitting and lying around, most people expend much less energy daily.

The result is humans are now more sedentary than ever. Even those working out can spend most of their day sedentary, leading to impaired health and fitness. So it’s no surprise that upwards of 90 percent of adults in developed countries have excess body fat.

Movement is life. Improving your daily energy expenditure — the amount of calories used during your normal day — can lead to greater health and fitness returns. Movement improves metabolism, physical fitness, muscle, bone and joint integrity, brain function, the heart and lungs, hormones, and more, even if you already exercise.

For decades, clinicians and scientists have measured, monitored and conveyed the relationships between daily activity and energy expenditure — how many calories the metabolism uses each 24 hours. Overall, those with more energy expenditure are healthier and more fit. Even a very mildly active person may expend 2,500 calories in a day, yet a one-hour run will burn only about 400 calories.

Many people could exert much more energy — burn more calories — doing normal daily activities over the course of a day and night beyond what competitive athletes typically burn in their training sessions. While the quality of workouts influences our 24-hour energy expenditure, our state of activity between workouts usually plays a greater role.

However, too much “downtime” can offset what we try to do with exercise — improve metabolism and burn more body fat. It’s possible for most people to easily increase energy expenditure beyond the sedentary threshold with some relatively minor changes in daily habits.

I previously wrote about the dangers of sitting. One reason for this is the metabolic impairment associated with reduced energy expenditure, and this is worsened when the energy we do expend is calories of sugar instead of calories of fat. In fact, studies show that overfat people spend more time sitting than those who are not overfat.

An example of how significant some simple changes in daily activity can be is a study by Levine and colleagues in the journal Science, 2005. They showed that if overweight individuals changed their postural habits to two hours of standing instead of sitting each day, energy expenditure would be increased 10-20 percent, potentially resulting in a weight loss of 30 pounds in one year.

Sitting is sedating from an energy expenditure standpoint. In a comfy chair it’s not much different than lying down in bed. And sitting on an exercise ball is not much better either. Wherever you sit during the day, getting up often is essential. This increased physical activity need only be of a very low-level to achieve substantial energy expenditure.

While standing is better than sitting, it may not be so dramatic if you just stand still. Energy expenditure increases substantially going from sitting to standing, but within about five minutes, it returns to near-sitting levels without some movement. That’s where being fidgety can help. Moving around — even taking a single step — and especially pacing, or alternating weight-bearing between left and right leg, can all increase energy expenditure.

Even when standing at a computer work station there are moments when you stop typing, have to look away and think, and this is an opportunity to move. If you get a phone call or text, need to contemplate how to phrase a sentence, calculate a formula, or do some other mental activity, it’s an opportunity for movement. In addition, you still may have to sit at times. But as long as you transition from standing to sitting, then sitting to standing again, you could literally double your energy expenditure using these strategies.

Food and Sleep Components

Of course, there is considerable difference in energy expenditure from person to person because we all have different metabolisms and burn varying amounts of fat vs. sugar. Those who train their bodies to burn less sugar use more stored body fat for fuel.

Another component to daily metabolism that may be more important than physical activity is the type of foods you eat. Too often the calories we do burn are more sugar calories and less fat, even if our energy expenditure is high. If you’re eating a high-carb diet chances are you’re burning more sugar than fat for fuel for all your daily activities. The result is most people of the world have too much body fat, including athletes.

Younger people generally are less carbohydrate-intolerant, and able to consumer higher amounts of natural carbohydrates without impairing the burning of fat calories. Not so with age, or in those who are carbohydrate-intolerant due to genetic reasons (such as a family history of diabetes) or just from long-term junk-food consumption.

A sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of carbohydrate intolerance. Combined with the consumption of junk foods, especially refined carbohydrates, including added sugars, can further impair fat-burning during all physical activity, including those performing very high levels of exercise training. In healthy adults, the consumption of processed foods can reduce overall energy expenditure by nearly 50 percent compared with meals containing whole foods.

Sleep time also influences energy expenditure. With seven to eight hours considered normal, less sleep leads to consuming more food without expending any more energy. This is probably due to hormones involved in appetite regulation being impaired due to lack of sleep. This further risks increased body weight and fat.

Of course, if you tried exercise and it doesn’t work for you, or you just don’t want to do it, most likely you’re sedentary too. These strategies can then literally be life-saving.

Non-exercise low-intensity daylong activities, such as standing more than sitting, transitioning from sitting to standing, and other movements, can significantly increase energy expenditure, burn more of that energy (calories) as fat, help reduce excess body fat, and increase physical and mental energy, even in those who don’t perform traditional exercises.

In addition to the sit-stand strategy, other habits can be adapted that will also increase energy expenditure. Parking your car further from your office, store, train station, etc., taking the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator, walking at a brisk pace rather than a stroll are some of these.

By implementing more natural daily physical activity, we can reap many metabolic, cardiovascular, hormonal, stress managing and other benefits, not to mention reducing excess body fat. Need help implementing a new movement strategy? Find a friend, co-worker or family member and do it together, or use your smartphone’s timer to remind you to get up and move.

3 Comments

  • Jeff Nichol says:

    I heard dr Maffetone on a podcast talking about certification courses in the works. Wonder if and when that might be happening as I would be very interested in taking them.

  • Grant says:

    Love this article.

    Are you able to elaborate on ‘improves metabolism’ – as I believe this doesn’t necessarily mean speed up. Research and material from Mark Sisson in his latest book highlights elements of this.

    Thanks

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