It's Not How Much You Exercise- It's How Much You Don't

By: David A Fein, MD
Medical Director

Travel around the world and you may notice that the United States has strikingly more fitness centers than any other country. And you don’t see nearly so many people jogging on the streets in foreign lands.  Americans have made exercising into an obsession to the point of making you feel guilty if you aren’t spending 3 hours a week in the gym. But according to a recent statement from the American Heart Association, the odds are that all that time and money you spend exercising is probably not helping your health very much.

The rest of the world gets generally gets their exercise by being active intermittently throughout their day.  People walk to work, they walk to lunch, they are physically more active at work, they walk to socialize at the end of their day.  More and more, Americans tend to drive to and from work, sit at desks all day and then go home and sit some more.  These hours and hours of being sedentary are broken up only with short bursts of intense physical activity.

That is not the way we evolved.  Our ancestors didn’t sit in a cave for two days and then go outside to run for an hour.  In fact, running was very likely something they only did when being chased by something with very large teeth.  Our bodies are adapted to be continuously active throughout the day.  So, it should come as no surprise that intermittent bursts of high intensity exercise may not overcome the negative effects of prolonged periods of being sedentary.

"Regardless of how much physical activity someone gets, prolonged sedentary time could negatively impact the health of your heart and blood vessels," said Deborah Rohm Young, Ph.D., director of behavioral research at Kaiser Permanente Southern California in Pasadena and chair of the new scientific statement published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation.

Sedentary behavior is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, insulin resistance and overall mortality. Even people who are very physically fit and exercise on a regular basis are at increased risk if they spend much of the rest of their time sitting.  Even vigorous exercise does not make up for 2 days of having been inactive.

The evidence is still evolving but it is becoming increasingly clear that the best exercise prescription should include “sit less, move more”. 

Busy work schedules are often an obstacle to starting a regular exercise program.  It is just too hard to commit to a schedule of doing an hour of exercise 3 days per week.  It may turn out to be that it is far healthier not to even try to find that time.  Instead, do small increments of exercise scattered throughout your day.  Take multiple 5 minute breaks and get out of your chair.  Do a couple of quick sprints up a couple flights of stairs.  Keep some resistance bands in your desk drawer and do 5-minute resistance training drills such as bicep curls, shoulder presses, leg extensions, squats, etc.  You don’t need to drive to a gym, change your clothes or shower.   You can fit your exercises into commercial breaks while watching TV in the evenings, too.  Standing at your desk can help, too.

Most experts recommend a minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity per week.  Instead of cramming that into an hour at a time, try doing a half dozen 5 minute breaks throughout your workday.  Not only is it far easier to fit into your busy schedule, you will likely find it refreshes your brain and breaks up your day.  And, it is very likely going to have a much bigger benefit for your health.