Making Exercise Fit: It’s the Small Stuff…
Last week, I was forwarded an article that claimed that inactivity now kills as many people as smoking. Apparently:
A lack of exercise is now causing as many deaths as smoking across the world, a study suggests.
The report, published in the Lancet to coincide with the build-up to the Olympics, estimates that about a third of adults are not doing enough physical activity, causing 5.3m deaths a year.
That equates to about one in 10 deaths from diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and breast and colon cancer.
Researchers said the problem was now so bad it should be treated as a pandemic.
And they said tackling it required a new way of thinking, suggesting the public needed to be warned about the dangers of inactivity rather than just reminded of the benefits of it.
I was actually already writing this post before I read that – but I wanted to quote that at the start because I think it’s worth bearing in mind. Inactivity is a real issue in our society because so many people now have desk jobs, and the majority of ways we entertain ourselves are sofa-based – which is far from ideal.
On that note, Matt’s recently taught me a new set of words that make me feel really clever. Even more clever than when I learned to say ‘historiographical metafiction’ during my BA for bonus po-mo points.
Are you ready for the big reveal?
Okay, here goes:
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.
Or, NEAT. Which is basically everything you do that isn’t structured exercise, but that still burns calories. If you’re one of those people, for instance, that fidgets a lot, you probably expend more calories over the course of the day than someone – like me – that can quite happily glaze over and stare into space ’til kingdom come. This isn’t helped by the fact that when you’re doing a PhD, you spend a lot of time sitting on your butt either reading or writing – neither of which are particularly strenuous on the physical front, no matter how much it makes your soul ache.
In 1999, Dr. James Levine conducted a study of NEAT, feeding volunteers 1000 calories more than they needed each day to maintain their weight. Which sounds like my kinda experiment. They all gained weight – and unsurprisingly, people who moved around more gained significantly less than their more sedentary counterparts. They also found that ‘as humans overeat, activation of NEAT dissipates excess energy to preserve leanness and that failure to activate NEAT may result in ready fat gain.’ That means that when you eat more, your body is predisposed to try to deal with it by making you move more to expend the extra energy. Which is good.
But unfortunately, your body is pretty clever – so if you consistently overeat, and you don’t get the exercise you need to cancel it out, your NEAT will reduce. Meaning that not only are you eating too much and not exercising enough, but you’re less equipped to deal with it – which is why it’s so easy to consistently gain weight with a bad lifestyle.
Even if you’re not aiming to lose weight, increasing this sort of activity in your life can’t be anything but a good thing – especially given reports like the one at the top of this post. Because yes, people need to exercise more – and yes, if you’re out to lose weight, you’ll need to spend a fair bit of time working out to make that happen – but inactivity isn’t just a matter of not going to the gym enough. Changing your whole lifestyle, and your attitude towards activity, is essential. It was a good month or so before I realised I was turning down lifts to work in favour of walking because – against the odds – I’d started to enjoy the energy boost the walk in gave me. It’s a gradual change – but as your body gets healthier, your mind will get happier, and suddenly, you’ll notice that it doesn’t seem so hard. In fact, it seems fun.
So think about it – what NEAT changes are you going to make this week?