Why You Should Be More Than an “Active Couch Potato”

Sit all day, and then hit the gym for an hour of intense exercise? If you haven’t been breaking for walks throughout the day, that epic sweat session might not be enough to counter the risks of being an “active couch potato.”

One Workout Isn’t Enough to Protect Your Health

You’re probably aware that a sedentary lifestyle is bad for your overall health, and exercise can ward off disease risk. However, researchers have recently begun to find that daily exercise might not be enough to offset the effects of too much time on your tush. A 2015 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, for instance, analyzed data from 47 studies to find that a 45-minute workout didn’t seem to be enough to significantly reduce the risk of conditions like heart disease and type-2 diabetes.

A recent study published in The American Journal of Physiology—Endocrinology and Metabolism is one of the first to dig into the potential biology behind why being an “active couch potato” may still harm your health. Researchers had seven healthy men complete a two-part experiment. In the first part, they were as active as possible each day, getting in about 17,000 steps. In the second part, they were sedentary for around 14 hours.

On the evening of each fourth day, the researchers had the men complete a one-hour run. The next morning, they dished up a high-fat, high-sugar breakfast. In previous studies, the scientists had discovered this routine brought down triglyceride levels—a.k.a. fats found in the bloodstream after eating unhealthy foods, which often lead to heart disease.

When the men in the study were active and hit the pavement for a one-hour run, they saw this same reduction in triglyceride levels. When they were not active and did the one-hour run? The body didn’t react to bring those levels down. “So much sitting seems to have made the men’s bodies exercise-resistant,” study researcher Edward F. Coyle, a professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas, told The New York Times.

“Exercise-resistant in certain capacities, perhaps,” says Michael Jonesco, DO, a physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Jonesco notes the Texas study was small and only included men—and exercise works on other facets of health besides triglycerides. “In fact, the study did not find significant differences in insulin or glucose levels, something exercise does to help stave off conditions like diabetes,” he says. “The take-home is that moving is better than not moving. There are so many other studies that support physical activity in any way, shape or form is beneficial​.”

Step it Up to Counter the Effects of Sitting

That said, movement during the day has a slew of benefits. “It prevents stiffness of joints and peripheral blood pooling, as gravity’s effects on blood can cause blood to become stationary in our hands and ankles,” Jonesco says. “Movement also prevents fluctuations in heart rate, and facilitates increased oxygen exchange in the lungs. Even small breaks from sitting can initiate hundreds of other metabolic and hormonal reactions.”

So, what should you take away? Exercise is great. Regular movement is great. But doing both is ideal. Jonesco says to aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise. “Shooting for 30 minutes, five days per week is ideal, though more intense exercise for 50 minutes, three times per week shows similar benefits,” he says.

200 years ago, the typical person lived a more active life, says Jonesco. “Jobs took us to the fields, where manual labor was truly physical,” he says. “Nowadays, technology has put us in chairs and in front of screens, often for hours at a time. Instead of using our free time to rest from our jobs, we need to actively seek out opportunities for physical activity. The aforementioned study does not suggest our efforts are a waste, but may shed light on the value of ‘sub-exercise activity,’ in which simply walking, stretching, moving in any way may help prevent drops in our metabolism.”  

So, it’s better to be an “active couch potato” than a total couch potato—but the key to healthy longevity might exist in the movement gap between those two. Bottomline: Get stepping, as often as you can.

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  • I’ve recently started a new workout regiment , and I’ve read this article. And realized I was making the mistakes mentioned in this article. Last week I a new 6 days a week workout regiments to ensure not to be a couch potato. I feel better that I’m being proactive. Thank you.

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