Our bodies were designed to move. They weren’t designed to sit still and boy, do we do a lot of sitting these days. We’ve gone from needing to move to hunt and gather food and clothing for our family, to being able to do all this and more, on our phone, from the comfort of our armchair. Technology has taken away a lot of our daily activity. For some of us who love our fitness apps, trackers and social media sharing, technology is helping to motivate us to exercise but generally speaking we are a whole lot more inactive than we used to be.
So why does inactivity lead to poor health? The cells of our body have their own powerhouses called mitochondria. Some cells in the body, such as skeletal muscle are packed with mitochondria. They produce energy for cells to use. That process goes on all the time and if we aren’t moving and using that energy, then a charge builds up across the cell membrane. This causes a stress in the cell called oxidative stress and leads to the release of free radicals. Free radicals damage the DNA of the mitochondria and if this is damaged enough, then the cell dies. This early cell death leads to inflammation in the body and we now know that long term, low grade inflammation is a cause and accelerator of many important health conditions. If however we can break up our sedentary time and avoid long periods of sitting then that charge is used up, it doesn’t build up. Fewer free radicals are formed, the DNA of the cell is preserved and the cell doesn’t die young. This results in less inflammation and is one of the ways that being active helps to reduce our disease risk.
One of the other things in our body that causes inflammation is visceral fat, this is the harmful fat that gathers in and around our internal organs; it’s not the subcutaneous fat that is just under our skin. Prolonged periods of being sedentary disrupts the body’s metabolism. It switches into storage mode and changes the way it uses fuel. So even if we are getting our half an hour at the gym on the way home from work, we still have health risks associated with the fact we have been sitting all day, the biggest of these is type 2 diabetes. Thankfully visceral fat is responsive to physical activity so if we can be active and reduce our sitting time then we can lower our visceral fat levels and be healthier as a result.
The key to this message is that it’s not just about the running. Running isn’t enough. To really get our maximum health benefit from activity we need to also reduce our sitting time. Little and often is the key. Something is definitely better than nothing. Once you get into the swing of it, it really isn’t that hard. Walk the last part of your commute, put your printer on the other side of your room to your desk, make a short walk to talk to a colleague instead of send an email, go to the toilet on the floor above where you are, get up and make a drink in the ad breaks, think about investing in a standing desk. I could go on but you get the idea. Share your ideas for making your normal day more active in the comments below.