We should all exercise more and be far more active. Following this simple advice is more effective than many drugs on a wide range of medical conditions. It is said to be the closest thing we have to a miracle cure although maybe it is more preventative than anything. Sadly, in spite of this, we are actually becoming less active however much we try to kid ourselves. People consistently overestimate their activity level and duration. This is partly because there is a great deal of confusion in exactly what counts as exercise or being active.

Being sedentary 

This general lack of activity means we are far too sedentary, we sit around too much, this causes several health conditions. When sitting was pronounced bad the way out seemed obvious. Standing desks! Sadly, standing at your desk all day is just a slightly more tiring way to be inactive. This disguised stagnancy increases pressure on the joints (with little extra muscular work), places the circulatory system under more pressure, increases the risk of various veins – all because you still aren’t moving. Sure, you’ll initially burn a few more calories but you’ll lose a lot less weight than people anticipate by changing this one thing (find out why here). 

Given neither sitting or standing for long periods is a solution, how about splitting up the prolonged bouts of inactivity with micro-breaks?

As a public health message ‘Taking regular breaks’ is simple to understand and easy to communicate. As a result it has gained considerable popularity. However, nipping to the loo, putting on the kettle or having a quick stretch just interrupts the time spent not moving. It is not the moving around that these breaks help – the benefit comes from reducing the total time spent being still. A combination of sitting, standing and regular breaks is better than nothing but really the only cure is prevention.

The active couch potato

Those who work 40 hours a week at a desk (sitting or standing), drive a few hours a day and then crash out on the sofa all evening try to compensate by adding in exercise. People who are only active during exercise are known as weekend warriors.

Exercise does have many benefits but are separate to the risks and effects of being otherwise sedentary so does not counter them. It is this lack of activity that is often the missing link to peoples success in the gym. It builds up a certain level of conditioning. It keeps you mobile and offers a certain amount of injury proofing. 

In other words, it helps prepare you for more rigorous pursuits. Those exercising hard without this constant groundwork will quickly develop just enough strength or stamina needed to injure their ill-equipped body and will be far less likely to see the results they seek.

Weekend warriors seem to spend the first half of their session on the latest mobility drill or rehabbing their latest affliction with corrective exercises. The last chunk of the workout is dedicated to ‘functional’ training or conditioning. This doesn’t leave much time for the actual workout so it’s no wonder progress is slow.

Scratching their heads and scouring the internet for training secrets they too often dismiss any exertion outside the gym as a waste of effort, energy or drain on their recovery when really it is a chance to help all these things. In truth, the more you do outside the gym, the more you’ll be able to do in the gym. Try to not see carrying the shopping or laying that patio as a chore but an opportunity. 

It’s no secret that some people do not enjoy cardio, others find the weights area daunting. If daily tasks are keeping you mobile, getting your heart rate up or challenging your muscles then you’ll have far better work capacity and be less prone to injury, you’ll no longer need to waste valuable gym time on making up your shortcomings, you’ll probably sleep better too!

Your extra-curricular activity may cause your very next gym session to suffer, but in the medium to long term you will be far better off. What’s more the amount of calories you can realistically burn in the gym is quite limited and unlikely to contribute towards much weight loss. Critically, the calories used in the gym don’t contribute much to weight loss – it is the ones burnt throughout the day that make the biggest difference, this is called NEAT. 

NEAT or ‘non-exercise activity thermogenesis’ accounts for up to 80% of your calorie expenditure. The more active you are, the greater this will be. Things like taking the stairs instead of the lift, walking instead of driving all help.

How do you become more active?

Anything where you are not sitting, standing or being inactive is a good start, going for a walk and so on is great but whilst it is necessary most day to day tasks are not exercise. In fact, ironing, cleaning the oven and all those domestic chores involve very little movement so would not count as activity and leaning over you shopping trolley, dragging your feet along the crisps aisle are not far behind.

Moving around is time spent not being sedentary but the intensity will need to be ramped up every now and then for the biggest health benefits. Moderate to intense activity should make up 2.5-12.5 hours a week. For it to count this is defined as any activity that increases your body temperature and elevates your heart rate for 10 minutes or longer. The low end of moderate will allow you to still hold a conversation. 

Brisk walking, not plodding fits the bill, as would manual labour. Really it is anything that can be sustained for long periods and ideally utilises large limbs. Higher intensity bouts are also recommended but this will undoubtably reduce the overall time. Very high intensity also has its place but because it cannot be sustained for long this won’t make up the bulk of your time being active.

There are plenty of reasons to include weight training into your week but it will not count much towards being active. Most the session is spent resting between sets. Even if you decide to do circuits, you would have minimised rest times and may well be out of breath but you would still not be moving around enough or utilising enough of your body simultaneously to do the trick.

Oh, and if you want to include what you get up to in the bedroom as ‘moderate to intense activity’, then you’ll need to be putting in some pretty enthusiastic and extended performances. Even if this doesn’t contribute much it is fun to try.

We can’t all just change jobs and become lumberjacks by day and gymnasts by night, but we can try making little differences throughout the day and week. Find ways to keep moving, lifting, bending and stretching. The gym can either supplement what your day is lacking or help you to reach your fitness goals. This will give you the best of all worlds.

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