Over a decade ago, a researcher in America discovered a neat little secret about why some people are slimmer than others.
James A Levine MD found an overall higher level of simple physical activity, such as fidgeting, nodding your head to music or quite literally twiddling your thumbs, could make the difference between burning more fuel or putting it away in spare tires around the waist or elsewhere.
It sounds like a breakthrough discovery but it never really made it into the mainstream. Maybe the original study’s not-so-catchy name, Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT), had something to do with it?
You might be familiar with the more common concept of incidental exercise, however, which suggests you get off the bus a few stops early, take the stairs instead of the lift or walk your dog to make sure you get a bit of additional exercise every day.
“The original study by Levine in 1999 found that leaner people stood for an average of two-and-a-half hours more per day. Instead of sitting down, they’d be heading to the photocopier or getting up for stretches,” says accredited exercise physiologist and practicing dietician Dr Kate Pumpa.
Changing from sitting to standing more of the time could help you burn the equivalent of a chocolate bar every day. It could also help boost your metabolism and increase your muscle mass.
How times & exercise has changed
It’s a concept that’s not hard to understand when you think about the way our society has developed. Instead of walking to the shops, we now buy online or drive to the next mall. Instead of getting sweaty doing the gardening or raking leaves, we use chemicals to get rid off weeds or use leafblowers – that’s if we even have a garden.
Instead of cooking our own dinner we buy instant meals, take-away food or eat out. “Most people don’t even realise how much our lifestyle has changed,” says Dr Pumpa. “It’s changed our energy expenditure.”
Ultimately, losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight goes back to expending more calories overall than you consume, be that through your job, leisure activities or fidgeting. But what most people don’t know is that little changes in daily habits are enough to make a difference.
A comparison of past with today’s sedentary lifestyles in an interesting Australian study (by Egger et al in 2001) backs up this view. Researchers compared the fitness and activity levels of modern office workers with those of early settlers and soldiers – played by actors at a historic park north of Sydney.
Using an accelerometer for their observations, they found the actors were 1.6 to 2.3 times more active than the office workers. Put simply, the actors walked a whopping 8 to 16 km more per day. This small but significant study shows the impact our sedentary lifestyle has on our general levels of physical activity.
A change of attitude
You may already be a tad more active with your newborn or kids around but chances are your energy levels aren’t quite the same. Hands up all those who spend the precious little time you have to yourselves flopping onto the couch watching TV, reading a book or on the phone catching up with girlfriends perhaps?
Cool. Don’t stress about it. Perhaps throw on our exercise videos and do 15 minutes of exercise instead? No? Too hard? Think you’ll give up again soon anyhow? Want instant changes? Can’t fit into your exercise gear?
Well…. perhaps what you need is a change of attitude. “Increasing lifestyle physical activity should be a strategy included in weight management efforts,” the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) concluded recently.
The ACSM has also reported the health-related benefits of exercise occur with the simple accumulation of 10 minute exercise bouts per day. Greatest gains can still be achieved with a higher combination of intensity, duration and frequency but isn’t the idea that a lot of a little helps a great motivator?
In a world where we’ve become used to the quick fix, slowing down as you have a child may help you to get ahead. Up your overall level of activity – but real slooooow.
Integrate exercise or even just simple movements into your everyday life. “Getting up and switching the channel by hand, doing the cleaning, preparing a meal, that all classifies,” says Dr Pumpa. “There’s a lack of awareness. People don’t realise how much energy they can expend by just doing bits and pieces. We’re always looking at making our life easier.”
Coincidentally, she says, a lot of the green movement’s suggestions, such as walking or cycling instead of driving, would also helps us return to a healthier lifestyle.
It’s about our attitude. Fast, easy and drastic results aren’t always better and it certainly doesn’t help you to really enjoy the activities you’re doing. Instead of making drastic but unsustainable changes to lose weight, look for ways you can slowly turn your lifestyle around and be more in touch with your body and environment – junior in tow.
Are you getting enough rest? (probably not!)
There’s a caveat: Enough rest could help make the difference. “A good night’s sleep seems to impact on incidental exercise pattern,’ says Dr Pumpa. Studies show sleep deprivation may mean longer working hours for the body – and you’d expect a higher energy expenditure overall, since we burn more calories awake than asleep. But sleep deprived test subjects slowed right down and spent less energy in their longer waking hours time than those getting enough snooze.
“They’re too exhausted to choose to be active.”
“Disordered sleeping patters also influence your food choices,” says Dr Pumpa. If nocturnal patterns are interrupted, people crave foods with high sugar and fat content. So, not only does better sleep set you up to expend more energy, it also helps you make healthier food choices throughout the day – leading to a more energised and active you. It will help make you feel fitter and happier.
While Dr Pumpa says the psychological benefits of incidental exercise are not very well researched, recent studies suggest those who are more active have improved perceived physical function. And you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out whether you feel better after a night spent on the couch digging into unhealthy food or after an evening walk down to the shops to get a little treat.
Start living the moment and enjoy being active. Throughout the day.
How To Get Started
1 Little Steps All The Way
Only focus on the day (or part of the day even) that’s right in front of you. It’s a technique marathon runners use to keep their motivation up. Instead of thinking about the whole run at the outset, think to the next lamppost. You want to make sure you get up a few times this morning and don’t stay glued to your desk. Got phone calls to make? Could you walk over to your colleague to talk to them instead of picking up the phone? Good, get up and move around.
2 Lampposts Along The Way
As the ACSM says, it’s about a long-term strategy. Set yourself up in the beginning to make it a sustainable lifestyle change and have a think about the lampposts ahead, the corners you’ll turn and hills you’ll run up. Do you have friends you could catch up with for a coffee over lunch – at a cafe a few blocks away instead of in the lobby? When in your days ahead could you walk instead of sit or drive?
3 Gear Check
Comparing your lifestyle to that of the past, think about where you could you make little changes that will up your overall activity level. Leave the car at home and grab the bike/ pram or walk instead. Switch the TV or radio channel by getting up – even if it feels silly. Use the oven, not the microwave. Manually water the plants.
4 Support Team
It’s hard to change your lifestyle – even if it’s just one step at a time – without your friends and family being in on the act. Tell them why you’re changing your habits. Get them to support you. Instead of sitting down for a cuppa, walk to a park near you. Another positive effect of a more active lifestyle is that it’ll hopefully help you reconnect with nature and people around you.
5 Eyes On The Price
To make sure your strategy has a long-term goal, think about why you would like to make positive changes. This could be small such as being able to keep up with the dog, getting less puffed or big like travelling the world or watching your grandkids grow up.
6 Dealing With Setbacks
Given it’s a daily choice you make to be more active and move about, even fidget, more, you don’t have to worry if you have a lazy day. Even top athletes have rest days after all. Make sure you make only as many changes as you can maintain at a time and slowly integrate new habits into your life. You’re laying the paving stones for the long run that is the rest of your life. Kiss crazy exercise or diet schemes goodbye
This article was written by Sol Walkling, the Lose Baby Weight Pilates Expert and Trainer – to see Sol’s credentials and read more about her click here
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