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Exercise Won't Offset a Sedentary Lifestyle, But Moving More Will

30 October 2018

Exercise is so often treated as a way to “offset” other bad behaviors. After eating a cheeseburger, fries, and shake at dinner, you might tell your friend you’re going to hit the gym the next day to “undo the damage.” And while many people realize that sitting all day long at work, in the car, and in front of the TV is bad for their health, they just plan to work extra hard at the gym to counteract their otherwise sedentary lifestyle. Well, we have some bad news for you: going to the gym doesn’t cancel out those hours of sitting still.

The Dangers of “Trade-Off Psychology”

Evidence is mounting that while attaining the Center for Disease Control’s recommended 150 minutes of “moderate-intensity aerobic activity” every week is undoubtedly a good thing, it is only one half of the equation. Just as important as the time we spend engaging in physical activity is the time we’re not moving our bodies—and for many Americans, that number is growing. And it’s growing in direct proportion to our rates of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes.

In a 2016 statement released by the American Heart Association (AHA), Deborah Rohm Young, the director of behavioral research at Kaiser Permanente Southern California, wrote, “Regardless of how much physical activity someone gets, prolonged sedentary time could negatively impact the health of your heart and blood vessels.”

The AHA’s statement goes on to say that sedentary behavior may be linked to an increased risk for developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, impaired insulin sensitivity, and an overall higher risk of death from any cause.

Contrary to our optimistic (or willfully ignorant) hopes, exercising does not offset the dangers of leading a sedentary lifestyle. Just like trade-off psychology doesn’t work for other aspects of our health—a smoothie doesn’t cancel out a cigarette, for example—we’re learning that it doesn’t work for physical activity, either. Even people who are physically active appear to have increased risk for disease if they lead an otherwise sedentary lifestyle.

Get Up and Move

According to Young, “U.S. adults are sedentary for about six to eight hours a day. Adults 60 years and older spend between 8.5 – 9.6 hours a day in sedentary time.” Sedentary behaviors include everything from sitting at your desk at work to reading a book to watching TV. If you think about how you spend your day, you’ll probably find that the sedentary hours add up pretty fast.

The good news is that you don’t have to make any radical changes to your lifestyle in order to decrease your sedentary time. In fact, the AHA concluded that instead of telling people to “exercise more,” we should be telling people to “be less sedentary.” You don’t have to run 10 miles a day to prevent the consequences of sitting too much. As the AHA reported, interventions focused on simply reducing sedentary behavior were more effective at increasing movement than those that emphasized an increase in exercise.

So what does that mean for your daily routine? Try to incorporate more activities that raise your metabolism 1.5x above its resting rate. Such activities include light housework, an after-dinner walk, playing catch with your kids, or use a sit-stand desk to stand for part of your workday. It also still wouldn’t hurt to aim for 20-30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per day, but the main thing is to spend less time on your seat and more time on your feet.

The AHA’s advice boils down to a simply four-word phrase, “Sit less, move more.” It’s simple enough to stick, but effective enough to do the trick.