Get Off Your Arse | How a lack of movement can kill you.

Sitting is the new smoking. At least that was a new idea a few years ago. Today, I suppose many people would tell you that remaining unvaccinated is the new smoking, but I’d better not get off on a tangent with that one.

A sedentary lifestyle causes, or contributes to, metabolic dysfunction, muscle imbalances, pain, depression, cardiovascular problems, and decreases in mental and physical performance.

If you believe you’re an active adult, you might be fooling yourself. One of the largest ongoing studies in the United States, called the NHANES study, uncovered a major gap between how physically active we believe we are, and how physically active we actually are. 

The study found that 65% of Americans thought they were “active” when asked. When measured, just 5% of Americans met the movement levels of an “active” individual. 

You might be extremely “busy.” However, “busy” has no relation to how active or sedentary you are. That’s why you ought to consider the contents of this article carefully.

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Adults sit in car pool lanes, at kids’ practices, at desks or in meetings at work, in the car during commutes, and while watching movies or browsing the internet. 

It’s often hard to keep kids still, but most adults must be intentional about getting enough movement during the day.

Even those who exercise regularly are not immune to the effects of a sedentary lifestyle. Research shows that those who exercise intensely tend to be more sedentary the rest of the day than those who don’t. 

That’s not to say those who don’t exercise are healthier, though. They most definitely are not. 

What Does It Mean To be Sedentary? 

Someone who is sedentary is a little more active than someone on bedrest. From a metabolic standpoint, it’s like your metabolism in stuck in sleep mode. 

The easiest way to classify your level of activity is through counting steps. You could use a Fitbit, an Apple Watch, or any of the numerous other movement trackers. 

The following table outlines adult activity levels by step count.

Steps Per dayCategory
5,000-7,499Low Active
7,500-9,999Somewhat Active
>12,500Highly Active

Note: If you get a movement tracker, don’t cheat by wearing it during your workout, especially if you’re a runner. 

Treat your daily movement as something separate of your exercise sessions. 

The first time I tracked my steps, I was shocked by how few I averaged. I don’t think you need to track steps for the rest of your life, but by doing so for a couple months, you can develop more of a habit of moving throughout the day. 

Many devices even have periodic reminders if they sense you’ve been sitting too long. 

Sitting and Your Metabolism

Check this out! A sedentary lifestyle increases your risk of:

  • developing diabetes by 112%
  • developing cardiovascular disease by 147%
  • cardiovascular mortality by 90%
  • “all-cause” mortality by 49%

How can this be? 

For many years, it was believed that too much sitting caused weight gain because you burn fewer calories. It’s not true. 

To explain what happens, I have to share a couple fascinating research studies.

Research shows that the connection between a sedentary lifestyle and weight gain has little to do with calorie burning. 

The real problem is that sitting causes a dysfunction in your metabolism. 

Animal studies are easier to control than human studies, so here’s what happened in a fascinating rat study…

When rats are allowed to run, they typically run about 12 miles per day on the wheel in their cage. Think of it as a mini treadmill. Can you see those little legs scrambling for 12 miles each day?! 

When researchers locked their wheels, the rats got fat. That’s not surprising. 

What was surprising was that the rats still got just as fat when their food intake was reduced to compensate for the calories they didn’t burn from running. 

Put more simply, the rats got fat because their metabolism changed, not because they ate too many calories.  

Another study used healthy young men who averaged 10,000 steps per day. Their activity level was reduced to 1500 steps per day for two weeks. During those two weeks, the men ate fewer calories than they burned, which led them to lose weight. 

Yet they also got fatter. Their visceral fat (belly fat) increased by 7%, and their cardiovascular fitness fell by 7% while the muscle mass in their legs fell by almost 3%. And this was just in two weeks time! In healthy men!

They followed a low-calorie diet, and lost body weight, but they got fatter at the same time. 

I’ve seen this happen in people over and over. They follow a low-calorie diet, and do a little cardio, and become “skinny fat.” They get thinner, but their body fat percentage goes up and their muscle and metabolism trends down.

Why does this happen? 

Decreased Insulin Sensitivity

Less than two hours of sitting has been shown to reduce insulin sensitivity. Your cells don’t respond as well to insulin as they should, so blood sugar levels rise, which triggers even more insulin to be secreted. As long as insulin levels are high, you cannot burn body fat.

Insulin locks up your stored fat and glucose (a.k.a. glycogen) so you can’t access it to produce energy. Even though you have enough energy stored in your body fat to help you run multiple marathons, you can’t use any of it when insulin is high. 

It would be like having $1 million in the bank, but your PIN doesn’t work at the ATM. Even though you have a ton of money, it’s useless because you can’t use it.

Since you can’t access your stored energy, your body tells you to eat more food. Even though you’re overweight, you’re also starved of energy. 

But, if you keep eating the foods that cause insulin to rise, you won’t be able to use much of the energy from those meals. So you keep eating, and eating, and eating. Overweight and starving…

Decreased insulin sensitivity (insulin resistance) is one of the first steps towards diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

Moving for a few minutes each hour helps prevent a drop in insulin sensitivity. So get up and move.  

Altered Genes

A sedentary lifestyle can alter up to 4500 genes and 34 metabolic pathways. 

It’s not that you’re born with bad genes. You alter your genes by the lifestyle and nutrition choices you make. Change your choices, change your genes.

Increased Belly Fat

The fat around your abdomen is the most dangerous fat on the body. Belly fat, or visceral fat, causes significant inflammation. 

High levels of stress, and a sedentary lifestyle, contribute to increased belly fat, even when you eat a sensible diet. 

Decreased Fat Burning

Again, when your insulin function gets disrupted, you lose your ability to burn fat.

For those with a dysfunctional metabolism, it can take weeks or months of increased activity before they correct their insulin sensitivity, and begin losing weight on their nutrition and exercise program. If you’re among this group, stay consistent and remain patient.  

The faster you adopt healthy nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle strategies that contribute to optimal insulin and blood sugar levels, the faster you drop body fat. 

Elevated Blood Pressure and Cholesterol

Sitting contributes to problems with the cardiovascular system. The worse things get, the harder it is to be active. However, the only way to overcome the cardiovascular issues is to remain active, even when it’s hard.

Poor Posture and Muscle Function

Sitting wreaks havoc on your posture, which contributes to back and neck pain. Sitting also causes imbalances in your muscle function. 

Your chest gets tight and your upper back gets weak. These changes cause pain in the neck, hips, knees, and shoulders.

Your hip flexors get too tight and your butt muscles stop working. You end up with back problems, and a butt that looks more like a pancake than a peach. 

Standing Up and Stepping Toward Health 

Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to significantly improve the situation. 

The first “step” is to become more aware of how much, or how little, you actually move during the day. 

While I don’t believe it’s necessary to track your steps each day for the rest of your life, I do believe it’s helpful for several months, until you change your lifestyle patterns. 

Buy a pedometer or movement tracker and see where you end up for a few days. Then set a daily goal to increase your steps until you’re able to reach 10,000 steps on most days. 

Not only will you feel great about the accomplishment, your body will feel and function a lot better. 

Again, movement isn’t about burning calories. It’s about maintaining a healthy metabolism and proper posture.