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What are the effects of a sedentary lifestyle?
If you’re someone who spends a large portion of your week working behind a desk, you probably already have a pretty good idea of how a sedentary lifestyle affects your health and wellbeing. You might have heard about this stuff on social media, maybe you’ve experienced it yourself, or perhaps some smug Personal Trainer who has no idea what it’s like to work behind a desk keeps harping on about it in her blog posts…
Aches and pains in the back, neck, shoulders, and knees are a common effect of being sedentary throughout the day, as are symptoms such as feelings of lethargy, lack of focus, and digestive discomfort.
Long term, the potential consequences are even more worrying. A 13 year study on over 120,000 individuals published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that inactive people who sat for more than 6 hours per day were up to 94% more likely to die during the study period than active people who sat for less than 3 hours per day. Shocking, right!?
If you live a mostly sedentary lifestyle, you’re at risk of:
- Cardiovascular disease such as heart attacks and strokes;
- Herniated vertebral discs and sciatic pain;
- Anxiety and depression;
- Decreased sense of fulfilment or satisfaction in life.
How can we avoid and overcome these issues?
You might assume that more exercise is the answer to these problems, but unfortunately a couple of gym sessions each week simply isn’t a good enough solution. I’m sorry to say this, but 2-3 hours spent exercising out of a total of 168 each week won’t negate you having been sedentary for the best part of your 40+ hour working week.
Let’s explore what the best option might be for you to avoid and overcome those aches, pains, and health issues that arise from long hours spent on your butt. To help, I’ve drafted in four imaginary friends of mine, who I've placed into four categories:
One hour of exercise has very little effect on overall daily energy expenditure
You’ll notice that each of the four categories describes each friend as a combination of “sedentary” or “mobile” and “active” or “inactive”. Here's what I mean by each of those terms:
Sitting for most of the day
Moving for most of the day
Does not exercise regularly
Got it? Cool, let’s keep going. Here’s an overview of a day in the life of each of our friends:
The line on this graph represents Simon's daily activity levels. You can clearly see that he moves very little throughout the day: he walks around a bit but spends the bulk of his time sitting still. There are lots of people like Simon in the western world. Lots.
Poor Simon has a higher likelihood of becoming obese, developing cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer, as well as reduced ability to regulate blood sugar and pressure. All of these things are associated with higher levels of mortality.
Sally's day looks very similar to Simon's, except she exercises at lunch. You can clearly see that she moves more, so she gets some points for that, but her exercise session doesn’t make a huge difference overall.
Even if we were to attach a numerical value to the energy Sally expended, this brief period of exercise, along with any "afterburn" effect, wouldn't bring her total that much higher than Simon's.
Let’s assume that Mindy works as a construction site manager. She spends her days walking, bending, reaching, and inspecting. You'll notice that even though she doesn't exercise, her overall activity level is considerably higher than that of Simon and Sally.
If we assume that Mindy is moving safely and eating a relatively healthy diet, it's fair to say that she has a greatly reduced chance of developing joint pain or medical problems.
Mark is by far the most active of the group, moving throughout the day and incorporating an exercise session after work.
You can see that Mark's daily exercise session doesn't make a huge difference to his overall movement levels, although it's safe to assume that his focussed training makes him stronger, fitter and more flexible, and gives him an extremely good chance of living a long and healthy life.
What's the difference between movement and exercise?
Humans haven't evolved much over the past 10,000 years. Your physiology remains very much the same as that of your ancestors, but your lifestyle is completely different. Agriculture and technology have completely changed the way we live, including how well and how much we move.
Your hunter-gatherer body is well equipped for roaming, running, climbing, traversing, and tackling obscure obstacles. Our ancestors spent their time seated on uneven ground, playing, swimming, and hunting; they moved almost constantly. By comparison, we’re not using our bodies the way they're designed to be used at all.
Now don't get me wrong - obviously everyone should take up exercise in some form, be that weightlifting, field sports, Zumba or yoga. What's more important for our health, however, is that we move more often.
What does this mean for you?
Ever heard the phrase "use it or lose it"?
It's extremely accurate. The less you move, the more your body will adapt to a sedentary lifestyle, and the quicker you will lose basic skills like the ability to touch your toes, achieve full depth in a squat, or lift any meaningful amount of weight. Your joints will ache, your muscles will atrophy, and you’ll find yourself feeling very unfit and out of shape.
If you continue to keep a sedentary lifestyle, then you will end up looking and feeling older than your years, suffer from more serious health issues, and end up immobile in old age, confined to your chair. You’ll also die sooner. It's a harsh truth, but understanding it opens up a world of opportunities for us. With this knowledge we are guided to make much better choices about how we use our bodies and spend our time.
At this point you might be thinking: "hang on - I have a job! A career! Responsibilities! How am I meant to move around all day if I've got to be at work?" ... I see your dilemma, friend.
I’m not joking when I say I want to change the world. My ethos when it comes to personal training extends considerably further than the realms of conventional exercise coaching. Most of the people I train are living busy professional lifestyles with limited time to spend on their health, fitness, or personal development. They come to me because their health and fitness have deteriorated. They are utterly miserable and have no idea what to do about it.
It’s very clear that people in this position don’t just need excellent exercise and nutrition programming. They need support with their mental health, guidelines on how to live a healthier lifestyle, and the motivation to make powerful, positive long term change. More than anything, they need someone who understands that they have responsibilities and limitations, and coaching that works around all of that.
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