Going out for a run or hitting the gym are great for your body and mind but if you spend the rest of your time being sedentary and especially seated behind a desk or on your sofa watching TV, you may not be doing enough physical activity for optimal health. You may even be doing yourself untold harm.
The danger of too little activity
Current research suggests that spending long periods of time being seated can have a very negative impact on your health. In fact, this serious situation is often described as “sitting disease” and is commonly associated with an increased risk of suffering…
- Heart disease
- Poor posture
- Reduced bone mass
- Decreased functionality
There is no denying that your (hopefully!) frequent walks and trips to the gym are doing you good but it’s also a great idea to increase your activity levels to further reduce your risk of suffering those diseases associated with a sedentary lifestyle.
How can you go about doing this without becoming an exercise obsessive or full-time athlete? Good question!
Exercise versus physical activity
Firstly, it’s important to differentiate between exercise and physical activity. Exercise tends to be structured and pursued for a very specific reason e.g. weight loss or muscle building. In contrast, physical activity is less structured and simply involves moving more and sitting less. For exercise to be beneficial, it needs to be sufficiently challenging. In the case of cardio, this means elevating your heart and breathing rate and for muscular health, this means working until your muscles feel fatigued.
NEPA: Non-Exercise Physical Activity
Physical activity doesn’t have to be so challenging to be rewarding and beneficial. Your heart and breathing rate WILL increase but not as noticeably and as for your muscles; they should not really suffer any real signs of fatigue. To repeat; physical activity is NOT exercise which is why it’s often given the acronym NEPA which is short for Non-Exercise Physical Activity.
In fact, physical activity should be purposely kept at a relatively low level of intensity. Why? Because ultimately it should be a healthy addition to and not a replacement for your regular workout routine. If additional physical activity leaves you tired and not so inclined to hit the gym, then you may end up actually doing less exercise than you need to.
Overtraining – the danger of too much exercise
There is such a thing as too much exercise and too much exercise or insufficient rest between workouts can lead to something commonly referred to as overtraining syndrome. Overtraining syndrome is usually characterized by loss of exercise motivation, low levels of energy, sore joints, suppressed immune system leading to frequent illnesses and even disrupted menstrual cycle in women. Needless to say, as exercise is supposed to be a healthy pursuit, overtraining is best avoided!
In contrast NEPA is much less likely to contribute to overtraining and can, in fact, promote to recovery between workouts by preventing muscle stiffness and encouraging better blood circulation – things that sitting at your desk simply cannot do.
Get more NEPA!
So, assuming you are hitting the gym two or three times a week to work on your muscular fitness and clocking up around 150 minutes per week of cardio (as per the standard American College of Sports Medicine guidelines), what else should you be doing to optimize your health and fitness?
Sitting is arguably one of the unhealthiest things that many of us do on a daily basis. If you spend a lot of time sitting, you are risking your health, fitness and posture so try to simply stand up more.
Stand up whenever you take a phone call, walk to your colleague’s instead of calling or emailing them, try walking meetings rather than the usual boardroom setting, get up and change the TV channel by hand instead of using the remote…look for any opportunity to get up off your butt and stand up!
Walking is arguably THE most accessible form of NEPA. You don’t need any specialist equipment and can do it almost anywhere and anytime. Look for ways to get more walking into you daily routine. Opportunities for walking include…
- Walk to and/or from work or school
- Meet up and walk with friends rather than chat on the phone or at the pub
- Walk your dog/kids
- Walk after dinner instead of watching TV
- Walk during your lunch break
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator
- Park on the far side of carparks and walk the extra distance from your destination
- Get off the bus/train a little earlier and walk the difference
- Make family walks in the park part of your weekend family routine
- Ban car use for journeys less than one mile/1.6 kilometers
Many of us are over-reliant on mechanized transport but driving and being a passenger means you sit more and expend no meaningful amounts of physical energy – a double whammy of health risks.
Seek out other NEPA opportunities
There are dozens of daily opportunities to clock up NEPA minutes during the day. Here are a few things you to consider…
- Wash your car by hand
- Cycle for transport of pleasure
- Carry your shopping in a basket instead of using a grocery cart
- Play sports with your kids
- Play active games with your kids such as hide-and-seek or tag
- Use an interactive video game consul such as X-Box Kinect rather than controller-based games
- Do chores around the home such as cleaning and repairs
- Do some gardening or tidy your yard
- Rearrange your furniture
- Do some decorating
- Volunteer to help out a less able neighbor, friend or relative and do some of their physically demanding tasks such as sweep up leaves or clear snow.
How much NEPA?
Because NEPA should not be overly tiring and can actually enhance your energy levels and speed up recovery, there is no real upper limit to how much you can do in a day. It all comes down to your lifestyle and how much you can realistically fit in. However, as most of us work best when we have specific targets to focus on, aim to accumulate around 60 minutes per day of NEPA. This can be comprised of any type of physical activity; just choose things you enjoy.
Increasing your daily activity levels so that you spend less time sitting might sound a little daunting and time consuming but really, it doesn’t have to be. Walking can often get you where you want to be faster than driving because of heavy traffic, and playing with your kids or dog is just plain fun!
Other NEPA activities such as car washing and gardening may even save you money as you won’t have to pay someone else to do them.
60-minutes of NEPA per day equals 365 hours of additional physical activity a year which, assuming a very conservative 300 calories per hour, means you’ll burn 109,500 calories more per year than if you were sedentary. That’s roughly the equivalent of 31 lbs. of fat!
NEPA could very well be the difference between being overweight and unhealthy or reaching your ideal healthy weight and you won’t have to do a single minute of extra exercise.