PSA: You Are Sedentary (Even If You Exercise!)

exercising but still sedentary

Sedentary culture is viewed relatively in our society, defined in opposition to an extreme. People see it as a continuum, with athletes being at one extreme of activity and complete couch potatoes on the other.

I’d wager that most individuals in modern society consider themselves in the middle or slightly above. They may work full-time in a job that demands sitting, but they walk the dogs in the morning, and right after work they power through a high-intensity workout for an hour or two.  They go for a run on a nearly daily basis and are training for the marathon. Or they chase young kids around after work and claim weekend warrior status with strenuous hikes or 50-mile bike rides.

And I’d say that all of these people are, in fact, sedentary, myself included. Two years ago, I would have scoffed at the notion that I was sedentary. I am highly active. I run, bike, dance, hula hoop, hike, train in capoeira, etc. regularly. Walking is my main method of transportation since I live in the city and do not have a car. I average 10,000-15,000 steps a day, and most of my free time is spent going out and being active.

That is why I was shocked to discover two years ago that some of the pain I was experiencing during physical activity was due to muscular “amnesia,” muscles that  had been unused for so long that I no longer knew how to activate them. All the activity I engaged in was no match for eight hours a day sitting at the office. As I learned, exercise is no match for the sedentary culture most of us live in. Despite our seemingly substantial effort in being physically active, most of still suffer from sedentarianism.

…most of your body is not getting much or any movement most of the day even with exercise.

It makes sense if you view it from a temporal perspective. Eight hours of the day are spent sleeping (You are getting at least seven to eight hours, right?). Another eight to ten hours are spent working, likely indoors seated at a desk. You walk a bit for bathroom, coffee, and lunch breaks (You do take your lunch break, right?), but for large chunks of hours, you are essentially not moving. Or, if you have a service job, you may have to stand all day, which results in similar stagnation to the muscles and circulatory system as sitting. Or you may move but only to engage in the kind of limited, repetitive motions that  easily lead to overuse injuries.

There are six to eight hours left in the day, and two of those hours will be spent commuting to and from work, likely seated again, this time in a car. That leaves four to six hours, a large remainder of which will be consumed by meal times (again, seated), bathing, helping the kids with their homework, preparing for work, cooking, and other household chores that require little movement thanks to modern conveniences. Plus, after a long day of work, you probably want to unwind, maybe by watching television or reading a book. So, at most, you’ll spend one or two hours exercising, if you exercise at all. Thus, out of the whole day, the average person only spends an hour or two getting significant, full-body movement into their lives. And that is assuming their exercise counts as full-body movement. In reality, most exercise, like running and biking, favors a few limited motions of a few body parts. That is to say, most of your body is not getting much or any movement most of the day even with exercise.

Unfortunately, those few hours of exercise are insufficient to counteract all the numerous hours we spend stationary. We tend to define our activity level by how active we are in our free time, but every minute of our day counts towards our activity level. The time you spend not exercising and not moving does not have a neutral impact on your body. Each movement we take or fail to take every minute of the day shapes the condition of our bodies, for better or for worse. Seven hours of sitting at work is going to naturally have more of an impact on your muscles, bones, and other bodily systems than an hour of exercise. If you want your body to be at peak condition, you have to consciously strive to move well all day long, not just during time at the gym.

Throughout this site, I will use the term “sedentary” quite a bit. For the purpose of this blog, sedentary is defined as the state of movement being largely divorced from routine life activities so that the individual can exist for hours at a time without moving most of their body.

The situation is not hopeless, though. The solution is to integrate movement into our daily lives, which I plan to illustrate in future posts. In the meantime, get moving! Right now. Stand up. Walk around. Squat on the floor. Moving frequently is the key to combating the stagnation of frequent sitting.

One Reply to “PSA: You Are Sedentary (Even If You Exercise!)”

  1. […] goals of reducing obesity and its associated healthcare costs will remain illusory as long as movement is divorced from necessary life activities and treated as an optional lifestyle choice. We cannot simply keep asking overburdened citizens to […]

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