Activity vs Exercise

What comes to mind when you think of someone who lives an active lifestyle?

picjumbo treadmill photo

  • Gym-devotees who head straight from the office to the locker room?
  • One of “those people” who goes running and likes it?
  • Freakishly flexible yoginis who hang out with their legs wrapped behind their heads?
  • Weekend warriors with their half-century bike rides (that’s 50 miles, not 50 years of pedaling…) and 6 hour hikes?
  • Crossfitters?
  • Elegant ice dancers or bootylicious speedskaters? (God bless the Dutch.)

Maybe all of the above?

And all of those things – running, biking, gym workouts, crossfit, ice dancing, hiking, contorting – are active pursuits.  They’re good for you, and for the sake of your physical health and overall wellbeing, you should find a physical activity you love doing and keep doing it.

But think about it – how much of your lifestyle (i.e. what percentage of your waking hours) do these activities comprise?

For most of us, not even 10%.  One hour of structured exercise 6 days per week makes up less than 6% of your waking hours for the week.

So what do you do with the other 94% of your days? 

For most of us, it’s something along the lines of sitting in a car (commuting to and from work), sitting at a desk (while we’re at work), sitting on the sofa (when we’re at home trying not to think about going back to work the next day), and maybe some standing here and there (in line at the coffeeshop, in front of the freezer, outside your boss’ office praying you’re not on HR’s hit list again, the usual).

picjumbo desk work sitting photo

Sitting, sitting, sitting, and a little standing in place?  Sounds pretty sedentary, don’t you think?

Let’s review some of the bad things that can happen when you spend too much time on your badonkadonk:

  • Poor posture and resulting spinal problems. [1]
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease. [2]
  • Decreased insulin sensitivity (and thereby increased risk of diabetes). [3]
  • Increased risk of breast and colon cancers. [4]
  • Increased risk of depression and decreased sense of wellbeing. [5]
  • Atrophy of skeletal muscle and/or difficulty in maintaining lean mass. [6]

So what is the solution?

Spoiler alert: It’s not more exercise.

Remember, the cost:benefit ratio for exercise is pretty impressive, as we’ve discussed previously. But being sedentary for the majority of your waking hours can have detrimental effects that even a solid exercise routine will have a hard time combating.

The secret lies in the informal physical activity you perform throughout the day.  Some people refer to this as Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT), which is any physical activity other than formal exercise that requires an increase in energy output above your basal metabolic rate (the bare-minimum energy your body needs to function if you were to literally do nothing but lie in bed all day).

picjumbo reading bed photo

Whatever you call it, it’s simple.  Activity is not complicated – our bodies were created to for movement.  After all, formal exercise didn’t become a mainstream phenomenon until relatively recently.  Informal activity/NEAT has impressive power to negate the unfortunate effects of sitting, and it’s quite easy to work into your everyday routine:

  • Walk an extra minute from your parking spot to the store instead of circling the lot for 10 minutes to find an open spot in the front row.
  • Get up from your desk for a water/stretch/handstand break every 20 minutes.
  • Walk your dog.
  • Go on a pub crawl instead of staying at the same bar all night. (Ok, perhaps that’s a stretch.)
  • Clean your house – vacuuming, sweeping, mopping, dusting, dishwashing, laundry-folding, shower-scrubbing…they all serve double-duty.  You’re up off your butt, and your house looks a lot better.
  • Clean your car (it probably needs it, anyway).
  • Make a habit of taking a 10 minute stroll once a day.  In the morning, on your lunch break, after dinner, or whenever you can fit it in, it will give you a chance to pray/think/”hit refresh” and come back feeling less stressed and more focused. Plus, you’ll have given yourself some momentum to stay a little more active throughout the rest of the day.

walking public domain photos

Truth be told, most people who exercise with any regularity are way ahead of the game.  Squeezing informal activity into your day is something that may require conscious effort, but it’s not something you need to stress about.  Snowball theory applies here! Start with something small, and you’ll find your daily activity builds upon itself and soon enough your active lifestyle will extend outside of the gym.

And for what it’s worth, a part-time job at Starbucks will definitely increase your NEAT.  Trust me.

(It will also increase the amount of dried coffee and related substances that you find in unmentionable places on your person, but the health benefits of that require further study.)

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6 thoughts on “Activity vs Exercise

  1. Great post. I always walk up and down stairs and escalators, take breaks at work when I can to just walk for a few minutes and on the days I don’t work I walk a lot. Not driving ever helps a lot but I think I’m still a bit scared to add up every hour of the day that I do just sit or stand…

    1. The average “sit time” for American adults is something like 11 hours. Crazy, right? That’s one of the reasons I think fitbits and the like are kind of cool…you can see your own stats in real time!

  2. It’s crazy how much of a difference daily activity can make. When I was cleaning houses during college, I dropped so much weight! I hadn’t even been trying – it just fell off me because I was cleaning houses 4-6 hours about 3-4 days/week!

    1. Oh man, I bet! It would be fun if you could have worn a fitbit and seen how many steps you took in a workday…sure it would be 5+ miles!

  3. Man, I could blow you up with compliments right now about how incredibly detailed and HELPFUL this post is. I rarely take the time to asses how long I actually sit on my bum at the office. I go to the gym @ 4:30 am everyday, drive to work 40 minutes each way, sit at my desk for a good 9 hours, and then go home like a big Netflix potato, and do just that. Eat and watch, like your typical American. Sigh. I digress. I think you’ve convinced me to walk around the office a bit more, maybe even sneak in some casual yoga when the team goes out for lunch.

    Once this crazy Chicago weather clears up (if there is sucha a thing), I plan on walks in the evening instead of Netflix. I need a change!

    1. I feel you, girl! When I was working in marketing, it was a huge moment of clarity…no wonder adults have such a hard time getting/staying fit when making a living means sitting on your donk all day!

      On the other hand, that was also the time I started doing office yoga, soooo I DEFINITELY endorse that idea. You better IG it if you do it, though! 😉

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