The Benetfits of Unstructured Physical Activity

We all know we need to exercise more, but the sad truth is that its just not happening.

Sheri Colberg-Ochs By Sheri Colberg-Ochs, PhD

We all know we need to exercise more, but the sad truth is that it's just not happening. Despite all the known health benefits for everyone – people with and without diabetes alike – nearly half of American adults are not active at all, and 7 in 10 are not moderately active for the recommended 30 minutes a day "most days of the week." Why are we so physically inactive? Blame the sedentary state of our nation on the industrial revolution, and you won't be far off the mark. We're the modern-day "hunter-gatherers" who typically do neither of those physical pursuits on a daily basis.

Instead, in just the last few decades, we have experienced a rise in sedentary, leisure time pursuits unparalleled in American history. Labor saving devices like dishwashers, remote controls (for everything, including insulin pumps), personal computers, cell phones, and even PDAs have left most of us sitting on our (ever-expanding) derrieres more than ever. When was the last time you shopped in the mall instead of on the Internet? Guess which one expends more energy? With how fast-paced society is nowadays for most people, is it any wonder that we often choose to let our fingers "do the walking" instead? Unfortunately, our bodies and our health have begun to suffer as a result. Being overweight or obese has become, frankly, the norm rather than the exception, and diagnoses of diabetes have skyrocketed.

Beliefs about exercise have changed dramatically over the past decade as well. Scientists and health care providers used to believe that exercise had to be vigorous to bestow meaningful health benefits, but more recently, a study conducted at Harvard found that – in adult women at least – moderate (brisk) walking decreases diabetes risk similarly to participation in more vigorous activity. Simply being physically active during leisure time – particularly if doing longer or more intense activities – also reduces diabetes risk as well. In other words, as far as your health is concerned, what really matters is moving your body and expending extra calories any way that you can.

Knowing that we need to be more active just isn't working to get us exercising regularly. So, what if we simply change our beliefs about what constitutes being "more active"? What if we just start using our labor saving devices less? Believe it or not, doing that would make a big difference in our daily energy expenditure. "Physical activity" means so much more than just planned activities. Just taking 2,000 extra steps a day can be the difference between gaining weight and losing weight (or at least not gaining any more). Even standing, talking, and fidgeting use up extra calories and can make a difference in your body weight. In one study that tracked lean and obese people for ten days, researchers observed that the overweight, self-proclaimed "couch potatoes" simply stayed seated for about 2.5 hours longer per day than their leaner counterparts, amounting to lesser calorie expenditure of about 350 calories per day – and a caloric equivalent of about 36 pounds of fat a year! Thus, even staying on your feet more can benefit your weight and your overall fitness level.

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Last Modified Date: February 16, 2013

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