Get Up and Move: Exercise and Nutrition to Combat Sedentariness

When you create a situation that has people working remotely, attending school by Zoom, and shut down fitness facilities (even outdoor parks), it’s no surprise that we became even more sedentary during the pandemic.
Recently Barbell Logic published an article on sedentary activities and whether or not you can outwork sitting. The following article is a registered dietitian’s viewpoint on sedentary behaviors.

Get Up and Move

By: Jeremy Partl, RD

In this article, I will dive into some research that looks at sedentariness in general, the impacts it has on our bodies, and whether our sedentary lifestyles can be mitigated or undone with smart nutrition and exercise.

Sedentary Lifestyles

Our culture has shifted to a lifestyle that is quite sedentary. According to a 2020 study, approximately 31% of the global population (over 15 years old) engages in insufficient physical activity—contributing to the death of approximately 3.2 million people every year.[1],[2] The same study reports that Americans spend 55% of their waking life (7.7 hours a day) engaged in sedentary behaviors. It’s not only an American thing, either. Among the Korean population, they average 8.3 hours of daily sedentariness.

There are many factors that play a role in increasingly sedentary behaviors:

  • Environments that discourage physical activity (traffic congestion, air pollution, shortage of parks or pedestrian walkways, and a lack of sports or leisure facilities)
  • Increased occupational sedentary behaviors (desk jobs, office work, etc.)
  • Proliferation of television and video devices (computers, video games, streaming services, etc.)

Adding to the punch was the 2020 pandemic that made it even harder to stay physically active. A published study from November of 2020 reported that average daily steps declined by about 5.5% during the first 10 days of a nation’s pandemic lockdown and by about 27% by the end of the first month.[3],[4] When you create a situation that has people working remotely, attending school by Zoom, and shut down fitness facilities (even outdoor parks), it’s no surprise that we became even more sedentary during the pandemic.

The Dangers of Stillness

The abundance of health conditions associated with sedentary behaviors is overwhelming. The literature has strong evidence that supports increased risks of “weight gain, all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease mortality, cancer risk, and risks of metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and dyslipidemia; musculoskeletal disorders such as arthralgia and osteoporosis; depression; and, cognitive impairment.”[5] It seems like if you name any kind of health condition, you may be able to find a connection to being inactive.

It’s no secret that these conditions have wide-ranging adverse impacts on the human body, including:[6]

  • Reduction in lipoprotein lipase activity, which is a key regulator in lipid metabolism. Decreased activity is linked primarily with lower HDL cholesterol levels
  • Impairments in insulin sensitivity related to activation of the sympathetic nervous system and decreased activity of the GLUT-4 transporter
  • Less total energy expended through non-exercise activity
  • Decreases in cardiac output and systemic blood flow
  • Alterations in the insulin-like growth factor axis and the circulation levels of sex hormones, which elevates the incidence of hormone-related cancers
  • Impairment of the gravitostat, the body’s weight homeostat
  • Reduction in bone density
  • Decreased muscle flexibility

When it comes to managing body fat, the variance in leisure-time NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) of a hypothetical office worker has the potential of impacting daily energy by up to 1000 calories per day.[7] Although it’s unlikely to be quite that high, someone who is primarily sedentary will likely be burning fewer calories on a daily basis.

It’s commonly thought that standing is a better solution (i.e., standing desks). However, the research suggests that there is actually not a significant difference in caloric expenditure between sitting and standing.[8] There is some evidence from a very small pilot study that standing may be slightly better than sitting for regulating blood sugar, but even the authors questioned whether it was meaningfully significant.[9] In reality, both are sedentary activities that may still lead to these negative health effects.

Exercised

Many people justify being sedentary with the rationale that they go to the gym three to four times per week. However, the research tends to suggest that exercise may slightly attenuate—but most likely does not eliminate—the detrimental effects of sedentary lifestyles.

A 2015 systematic review found that “prolonged sedentary time was independently associated with deleterious health outcomes regardless of physical activity levels.”[10] Further research from a meta-analysis released in 2016 brightened the picture by saying that it took 60-75 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per day to eliminate the increased risk of death associated with high sitting time.[11] A more recent dive into the topic reduced that recommended amount to 30-40 minutes per day to at least attenuate the risk of death. This amount falls in the upper end of the 150-300 minute weekly recommendation from the World Health Association.[12]

From my interpretation, this research does a pretty good job of answering the question of whether or not our time in the gym is enough to counteract our lifestyles. I’m surely writing to a biased audience who values exercise, but even some of us can struggle to fit in that amount of activity with our families, jobs, and schedules. We may be lucky to just get in our training sessions every week with our hectic lives and other priorities.

Snacking…on Exercise, Not Food

From what the research suggests, higher levels of total physical activity, at any intensity, and less time spent being sedentary are associated with a substantially reduced risk for premature death.[13] While correlation isn’t causation, the longest living populations (found in the so-called blue zones) have active lifestyles that incorporate a lot of farming/gardening, walking, etc. Practically, they are moving all day long. Most of us don’t work physically demanding jobs and are tied to our computers, so we need a solution.

One key strategy is to snack. No, I’m not talking about grabbing a handful of something sweet or salty throughout the day. I’m talking about breaking up sedentariness with short bursts of activity. It could last for mere seconds or for several minutes, but interrupting periods of sedentary activity is really what matters.

Says Martin Gibala, professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, whose lab has conducted several studies on exercise snacking, “we’ve sort of been conditioned that exercise is this thing you do in a special place once you change into spandex, and it’s very daunting for people . . . let’s get people out of the mindset that exercise is this special thing we do. You can just be active, even if it means setting your watch to trigger you to do some squats or wall sits for one minute after an hour of sitting.”[14]

A recent study in the area highlights the potential benefits of this approach.[15] The individuals were asked to sit for nine hours a day in recliners, “where they worked or watched television. They were all served three meals while sitting in their chairs. One day the participants never left the chair except to go to the bathroom. On another day, they left the chair just once an hour to race up three flights of stairs, which took about 20 seconds.” [16] The study found that interrupting prolonged sitting with brief hourly bouts of stair climbing lowered postprandial insulin and nonesterified fatty acid (NEFA) levels, which are both metabolic metrics of health that tend to be negatively impacted by sedentary behavior.

The study built upon previous research showing that breaking up a single session of continuous exercise into several shorter bouts spread throughout the day can improve markers of cardiorespiratory fitness, reduce blood pressure, and even be an effective countermeasure to fatigue. [17],[18],[19],[20]

Breaking up sedentary time with activity, especially brief bursts of more intense efforts, can go a long way to helping our body process nutrients, burn slightly more calories, and stay flexible and mobile (among other things). Even if these benefits are small in magnitude on an acute basis, these improvements would more than likely lead to a much more favorable health profile long-term.

Putting This into Practice

There are many ways that you could increase your daily activity:

  • Set a Pomodoro timer and make sure that you get up every 20-30 minutes to do some light stretching, walk around the house/office, do a set of air squats, etc.
  • Take a walk during your conference calls or put in your headphones and do some stretching.
  • Add music to the day. I can’t be the only one who enjoys spontaneous dance parties (even if you are by yourself in the kitchen)
  • Alternate between a sitting and standing desk (if you are set up for that).
  • Take a 10-minute walk after each meal.

The list could go on and on. If you take anything from this article, remember how beneficial it is to simply move more and spend less time inactive throughout the day. Any activity is going to be better than none, and just because you trained doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to sit on your butt the rest of the day.

Since it probably took you a few minutes to get through this article, this could be your reminder to get up and move!


Notes

[1] World Health Organization. (2012). Physical inactivity: a global public health problem. 2010. URL www. Who. int/dietphysicalactivity/factsheet_inactivity/en/. Part I APPEND.

[2] Park, J. H., Moon, J. H., Kim, H. J., Kong, M. H., & Oh, Y. H. (2020). Sedentary Lifestyle: Overview of Updated Evidence of Potential Health Risks. Korean Journal of Family Medicine, 41(6), 365.

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/04/well/move/for-an-exercise-snack-try-the-new-standing-7-minute-workout.html

[4] Tison, G. H., Avram, R., Kuhar, P., Abreau, S., Marcus, G. M., Pletcher, M. J., & Olgin, J. E. (2020). Worldwide effect of COVID-19 on physical activity: a descriptive study. Annals of internal medicine, 173(9), 767-770.

[5] Park, J. H., Moon, J. H., Kim, H. J., Kong, M. H., & Oh, Y. H. (2020). Sedentary Lifestyle: Overview of Updated Evidence of Potential Health Risks. Korean Journal of Family Medicine, 41(6), 365.

[6] Park, J. H., Moon, J. H., Kim, H. J., Kong, M. H., & Oh, Y. H. (2020). Sedentary Lifestyle: Overview of Updated Evidence of Potential Health Risks. Korean Journal of Family Medicine, 41(6), 365.

[7] Levine, J. A., Vander Weg, M. W., Hill, J. O., & Klesges, R. C. (2006). Non-exercise activity thermogenesis: the crouching tiger hidden dragon of societal weight gain. Arteriosclerosis, thrombosis, and vascular biology, 26(4), 729-736.

[8] Burns, J., Forde, C., & Dockrell, S. (2017). Energy expenditure of standing compared to sitting while conducting office tasks. Human factors, 59(7), 1078-1087.

[9] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/briefly-standing-or-being-active-reduces-blood-sugar-across-the-day/#:~:text=Briefly%20Standing%2C%20or%20Being%20Active%2C%20Reduces%20Blood%20Sugar%20Across%20the%20Day,-Get%20away%20from&text=For%20obese%20people%20who%20sit,night%2C%20a%20small%20study%20finds.

[10] Biswas, A., Oh, P. I., Faulkner, G. E., Bajaj, R. R., Silver, M. A., Mitchell, M. S., & Alter, D. A. (2015). Sedentary time and its association with risk for disease incidence, mortality, and hospitalization in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of internal medicine, 162(2), 123-132.

[11] Ekelund, U., Steene-Johannessen, J., Brown, W. J., Fagerland, M. W., Owen, N., Powell, K. E., … & Lancet Sedentary Behaviour Working Group. (2016). Does physical activity attenuate, or even eliminate, the detrimental association of sitting time with mortality? A harmonised meta-analysis of data from more than 1 million men and women. The Lancet, 388(10051), 1302-1310.

[12] Bull, F. C., Al-Ansari, S. S., Biddle, S., Borodulin, K., Buman, M. P., Cardon, G., … & Willumsen, J. F. (2020). World Health Organization 2020 guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour. British journal of sports medicine, 54(24), 1451-1462.

[13] Ekelund, U., Tarp, J., Steene-Johannessen, J., Hansen, B. H., Jefferis, B., Fagerland, M. W., … & Lee, I. M. (2019). Dose-response associations between accelerometry measured physical activity and sedentary time and all cause mortality: systematic review and harmonised meta-analysis. bmj, 366.

[14] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/04/well/move/for-an-exercise-snack-try-the-new-standing-7-minute-workout.html

[15] Rafiei, H., Omidian, K., Myette-Côté, É. T. I. E. N. N. E., & Little, J. P. (2020). Metabolic Impact of Breaking Up Prolonged Sitting with Stair Climbing Exercise Snacks. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

[16] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/04/well/move/for-an-exercise-snack-try-the-new-standing-7-minute-workout.html

[17] Little, J. P., Langley, J., Lee, M., Myette-Côté, E., Jackson, G., Durrer, C., … & Jung, M. E. (2019). Sprint exercise snacks: A novel approach to increase aerobic fitness. European journal of applied physiology, 119(5), 1203-1212.

[18] Jenkins, E. M., Nairn, L. N., Skelly, L. E., Little, J. P., & Gibala, M. J. (2019). Do stair climbing exercise “snacks” improve cardiorespiratory fitness?. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 44(6), 681-684.

[19] Wennberg, P., Boraxbekk, C. J., Wheeler, M., Howard, B., Dempsey, P. C., Lambert, G., … & Dunstan, D. W. (2016). Acute effects of breaking up prolonged sitting on fatigue and cognition: a pilot study. BMJ open, 6(2).

[20] Larsen, R. N., Kingwell, B. A., Sethi, P., Cerin, E., Owen, N., & Dunstan, D. W. (2014). Breaking up prolonged sitting reduces resting blood pressure in overweight/obese adults. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, 24(9), 976-982.

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