Meet the Active Couch Potato: How Sitting All Day Can Erase a Workout

Meet the Active Couch Potato: How Sitting All Day Can Erase a Workout

Are you an active couch potato? Take this two-question quiz to find out:

Did you work out for 30 minutes today?

Did you spend the rest of the day staring at your computer, then sit in front of the TV in the evening?

If you answered yes to both questions, you meet the definition of what scientists call “an active couch potato.” This means that, despite your commitment to exercise, you could be at risk for a variety of health conditions, according to an in-depth new study of how people move — or don’t move — throughout the day.

The study, which involved more than 3,700 men and women in Finland, found that many mindfully exercised for half an hour but then sat, almost non-stop, for another 10, 11 or even 12 hours per day. These were the active couch potatoes in the study, and their blood sugar, cholesterol, and body fat were all high.

But the study also found that men and women who got up and moved around still a bit more often, whether taking a gentle walk or exercising more, were significantly healthier than couch potatoes. active.

The results tell us that a single daily 30-minute workout “may not be enough” to mitigate the disadvantages of prolonged sitting, said Vahid Farrahi, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oulu and lead author of the novella. study.

In other words, if we exercise but sit for the rest of the day, it’s almost as if we haven’t exercised at all.

The good news is that a few simple steps — literal and otherwise — should keep us from becoming an active couch.

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The dangers of a sedentary lifestyle

The World Health Organization and other experts advise us to exercise moderately for at least 30 minutes most days of the week. A brisk walk counts as moderate exercise.

Substantial scientific evidence shows that this half hour of effort improves our health, morale and lifespan. The problem is how we spend the remaining 23.5 hours a day.

“It’s only been in the last five years or so that we’ve started to realize that physical activity isn’t the whole story,” said Raija Korpelainen, professor of health exercise at the University from Oulu in Finland and co-author of the new study.

Super Short Workouts Can Be Surprisingly Effective

In the past, most research looked at sitting and exercise separately, and tended to ignore or downplay light activities like going to the mailbox or getting another cup of coffee.

So for the new study, which was published in July in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Korpelainen and his co-authors turned to a large amount of data on almost all children born in northern Finland. decades ago. As they grew, the researchers tracked their lives and health and, once the group became adults, asked 3,702 of them to wear a science-grade activity tracker for at least a week.

Researchers were able to see, in six-second increments, whether someone was sitting, taking a light walk, or exercising throughout the day. Because the trackers measured movement, standing counted as inactivity, like sitting. With this data, they characterized people, rather crudely, by how they moved.

Active couch potatoes, who made up nearly a third of the group, sat the most, lounging more than 10 hours a day. They stuck to the recommended exercise guidelines – around 30 minutes daily of moderate exercise. But after that they seldom got up, accumulating less than 220 minutes a day of light movement.

Another group also trained for 30 minutes and sat for long hours. But, in the meantime, they often got up and walked around. Compared to the active couch potatoes, they spent about 40% more time — nearly 90 extra minutes each day — in what the researchers call “light activity.”

A third group sat, uninterrupted, until 10 a.m., but also amassed about an hour of exercise most days.

The final group, which the researchers aptly dubbed “the movers,” did just that, exercising for about an hour most days, while moving lightly for about two hours longer than the potato group. of active sofas.

When the researchers cross-referenced these groups with people’s current health data, the active couch potatoes had the worst blood sugar control, body fat percentage, and cholesterol profiles.

The other groups were all better off and about to the same extent, with relatively improved blood sugar control and cholesterol levels and about 8% lower body fat than the active couch potatoes, even when the researchers controlled for income, smoking, sleeping habits and other factors.

The lesson from the research is that in addition to fast training, we need to move lightly and often, clean up, climb stairs, walk down hallways, or don’t stand still. The sweet spot for this study involved about 80 or 90 extra minutes of light activity, “but any extra movement should be beneficial,” Farrahi said.

You can also try to exercise a little more. In this study, people benefited if they doubled their workouts to 60 minutes total. But, again, “do what you can,” Korpelainen said. Just adding an extra 10 or 15 minutes to a daily walk will count, she said, even if you can’t manage an hour of exercise.

“The goal is to sit less,” said Matthew Buman, a professor at Arizona State University in Tempe who studies movement and metabolism but was not part of the new study. “We can each decide how best to get there.”

Exercise boosts the brain — and mental health

This study has limitations. He only looks at people’s lives at some point. It also involved Finns, mostly Caucasians and all somewhat active, who may not be representative of the rest of us, and did not include a completely sedentary comparison group.

Even so, “it should inspire us to think about how we spend our time,” Buman said, and perhaps reconfigure our lives and spaces so that we move around more. “Try putting the printer and recycling bins in another room,” he suggested, “so you’ll have to get up and walk there.”

“I like to remind myself to go and look out the window often,” Farrahi said. “Solutions don’t have to be intimidating,” he continued. “Keep it simple. Try to move more, however you can, whenever you can and in a way that feels good to you.

Do you have a fitness question? E-mail and we may answer your question in a future column.

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