Is Exercise Enough to Fight Your Sedentary Lifestyle?

Executive Summary

  • A sedentary exerciser is someone who works out 3 hours a week and sits 109 hours a week
  • To get the most out of your exercise routine, you need more NEAT in your life
  • There are 2 types of movement: exercise & NEAT
  • Exercise is activity for the purpose of improving your health
  • NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. In other words, activity that you do throughout th day that burns calories.
  • To improve your NEAT, focus on these 3 strategies
  1. Morning Movement Ritual — Pick 6 stretches/exercises to do each morning: 2 static stretches, 2 mobility exercises, 2 bodyweight exercises
  2. Movement Hygiene Practice — Pick 3 exercise to perform throughout the day. Choose a total number of reps to complete for each exercise within a day’s time.
  3. Fight Your Lazy Elephant — 80% of our time is spent in automatic mode. Part of this auto-mode is our tendency to be lazy. Build awareness around the times that you’re trying to take the easy way out and make those opportunities for movement.

As we get deeper into the 21st century, we’re continuing to see more and more opportunities pop up for exercise selection. At this point, if you don’t know exercise is good for your health, you’ve been living in a rabbit hole.

But even though we have all of these different options to increase our fitness, is exercise really enough to help us overcome the mostly sedentary lives that we live?

Even if you get the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise recommended by the World Health Organization, are you being as effective as you could be in improving your health and fitness for the long-run?

Of course, any regular movement is better than no movement at all. So, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that your exercise routine is a waste of time. However, as you’ll see, if you want to get the most out of your one body that you get and become as productive as possible, you may be overlooking an important aspect of movement that can take your energy to the next level.

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What it Means to Live a Sedentary Exercising Lifestyle

If we could roll back the tapes of time to the paleolithic era, where our ancestors were just gaining their bearings on their newly found freedom of walking on two feet, you would notice something missing in the surroundings. You wouldn’t see a single Yoga Studio or Crossfit gym or Planet Fitness.

Besides the other obvious reasons, none of this existed back then because our ancestors “gym” was their environment. They ran in the fields. They climbed trees. They jumped over rocks. They swam through streams. Because of their environment, they were natural athletes.

Fast forward hundreds of thousands of years and the scene you see today is much different. Our “natural” environment now is made up of solid walls, hard floors, fluorescent lights and hours upon hours of sitting. As a matter of fact, the average person today sit about 10 to 12 hours a day. That’s outrageous. And yet not terribly surprising considering the lifestyle’s we’ve developed over the years.

To overcome this sitting epidemic, and to help get our health back on track, we invented exercise (okay, exercise wasn’t really invented to overcome sitting, but it was popularized to improve health back in the 1800s). And while exercise has been the saving grace of so many lives, it has also brought about the newly-found sedentary exercising lifestyle.

In case you haven’t heard of it, the sedentary exercising lifestyle is not much different than that of the sedentary lifestyle. The big difference, of course, being that those who live the sedentary exercising lifestyle workout on average 3 days a week for about 60 minutes at a time, while those who live a fully sedentary lifestyle don’t workout at all. This means that the sedentary exerciser is spending 60 minutes working out, and still allocating up to 11 hours to sitting.

As I mentioned above, I would never tell you that exercise is a waste of time. If you fall into this group of people who is diligent about their workouts yet still spends the vast amount of their time sitting, good for you for taking the initiative to make yourself better. The exercising you’re doing is going a long way to making your body a well-tuned machine. Today, though, I want to suggest something that can take that machine and fine-tune it. I want to show you how you can make the effects of your exercise routine last longer and be more impactful overall.

And to do that, I want to first teach you about something NEAT…

The Two Types of Movement You Should Be Using

There are two different types of movement that we all perform throughout our lives. The first, of course, is exercise. Exercise is what you do when you go to the gym or to your Barre class or out on the road to run. Its literal definition is activity for the PURPOSE of improving your health.

Notice I put emphasis on purpose. This was…well…purposeful. You see, exercise is imperative because it forces you to focus on getting better. Whether that’s building your strength or increasing your mobility or improving your running time. You workout to achieve one or a few of these goals.

The second type of movement is the one that is more easily overlooked. That’s because it’s not as sexy as exercise. When you workout hard, you can tell instantly by your high heart rate and dripping sweat. On the other hand, when you’re doing this second type of movement, you don’t give it a second thought because it’s so mundane.

The other type of movement that I’m talking about is called Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, or NEAT. Neat is the movement that you do throughout your day that isn’t geared toward improving a health goal. In other words, it’s not PURPOSEFUL.

Think back to the example about our ancestors and their environment. While I’m sure they had the select few in their day that did pullups off trees and fastened rocks onto limbs to make barbells for curls, the majority of our ancestors used the environment around them as they needed. Their life was full of NEAT because they had to constantly move to find shelter, run from predators, or acquire food.

If we assume that the average person has 112 waking hours per week (168 in a week minus 56 hours of sleeping), and that the average exerciser is working out 3 hours per week, then that leaves 109 per week of non-movement! That’s a lot of time.

Now, clearly I’m exaggerating because you have to move regularly to live your life. The point is, instead of only focusing your efforts on exercising those 3 hours out of the week, you need to figure out how you can improve your NEAT during those other 109 hours. And here is where you can start seeing huge gains in energy and productivity. Yes, your productivity will improve if you start to move more often throughout the day.

So, now that you know that you should be getting more NEAT in your life, let’s look at some a few simple strategies you can utilize today get your butt out of that seat and get it moving!

How to Increase Your NEAT to Improve Your Health & Productivity

As I mentioned above, NEAT can cover a wide range of activities, from laundry to cutting grass to walking the dog. So as we get into these actions steps, you’ll start to uncover a host of possibilities to get yourself up and moving. To begin, let’s start of a basic practice that only requires that you get up a little earlier in the morning…

As the name suggests, your Morning Movement Ritual is a movement practice that you perform every morning, preferably upon awakening. The reason that this is an optimal time to get your body moving is because you’ve just spent 6 to 8 hours in a mostly sedentary state, where the body becomes stiff and the aches and pains become more prevalent. So having a morning movement ritual allows you to unwind those aches and pains in a more purposeful way, rather than simply hoping they will work themselves out throughout the day.

You can develop an effective ritual that takes just 5 to 10 minutes first thing in the morning. In that 5 to 10 minute time frame, you’ll incorporate a combination of static stretches, mobility exercises, and bodyweight movements to help your body wake up in preparation for the day ahead. For best results, your MMR should include at least 6 total exercises: 2 static stretches, 2 mobility exercises, and 2 bodyweight exercise.

Let’s bring it all together by looking at my MMR:

  • Static: Can opener stretch (or Pigeon Pose, if you’re a Yogi) — 30 seconds each side
  • Static: Downward Dog Ankle Stretch — 30 seconds each side
  • Mobility: ½ Kneeling Adductor Stretch with thoracic spine rotation — 3 rotations each side
  • Mobility: ½ Kneeling Hip Flexor Wall Stretch — 3 forward rocks each side
  • Bodyweight: 10 Body Squats
  • Bodyweight: 20 Incline Pushups

This takes me about 6 minutes which I combine as part of my morning meditation. Although this is a small step in getting more NEAT in your day, it will go a long way in developing your energy and building a strong, resilient body.

The next step to implementing more intentional movement is by developing your Movement Hygiene Practice, or MHP for short. If MMR is what you do first thing in the morning, MHP is what you do throughout the rest of your day.

A quality MHP consists of at least 3 basic human movements that have a certain amount of reps of each that you strive to hit in a days time. For instance, an easy example is 10,000 steps. This is a very basic version of a MHP as the goal is to get 10,000 steps in throughout the day, not in one big swoop.

As an example again, let’s take a look at my MHP and break it down piece by piece:

  • Everything else: Turkish Getup x 1
  • Push: Pushup x 10
  • Pull: Pullup x 10
  • Hinge/Squat: Combo Goblet Squats & Swings x 100
  • Carry: Carry variations x 1,000 steps

As you can see, in my MHP I’ve decided to cover each of the basic human movements: push, pull, hinge, squat, carry, everything else. Some of these movements I can knock out in one set. For instance, the getups, pushups and pullups I can do one set. I typically have those done before 8:00am.

From there, I break up the squats and swings into 5 sets of 20, which I do every 20 minutes in the morning (speaking of which, there’s my alarm to get up and move. Be back soon…okay, I’m back). Then, I break up the carries into 5 sets of 200 steps, which I do every 20 minutes in the afternoon.

Now, understand, you don’t have to make your MHP as inclusive as mine. I’m a movement junky, so I feel the need to do all of this work. You, on the other hand, may just be getting started on your fitness journey. So start with 3 movements that you like, pick an exercise in each movement, then pick a certain number of reps to reach in a days time.

I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself “okay, Jerry, what in the heck is this ‘fight your lazy elephant’ thing, anyway?”. Well, fighting your lazy elephant is more of a mental shift than anything. It’s choosing to take control of your lazy subconscious ways and replacing them with more purposeful, conscious actions.

You see, the mind is made up of your conscious and subconscious minds. And there are many different ways to help differentiate the 2 from one another. For instance, in his outstanding book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman separates the 2 into System 1 and System 2 thinking, in which System 1 thinking is automatic, fast and effortless, and System 2 thinking laborious, slow and effortful. However, if you’re more of a metaphorical person, like most of us are, there is a simpler way to understand these 2 systems of the mind.

In another wonderful book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt explains the conscious and subconscious minds as a rider and an elephant. The elephant is the metaphorical subconscious mind because it is irrational, powerful and driven by emotion and instinct. The rider, on the other hand, is more thoughtful and deliberate. For humans, our average day is spent in elephant mode about 80% of the time. In other words, 80% of your actions throughout the day are done subconsciously. That is, unless you decide to take the reins and guide your elephant toward different grounds.

And this is where our analogy of the elephant and the rider comes in to play. You see, your elephant is naturally lazy if you let it be. Considering our sedentary, convenient world we live in, it is much easier to be lazy today than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Which is why you need to learn to fight your lazy instincts, take control of the reins, and pull your elephant into more deliberate motion on a regular basis.

There are a bunch of ways you can incorporate this idea into your daily life, but let’s at a few examples for clarification purposes. How many times have you gone to the store and drove around for 5 or 10 minutes looking for a close parking spot? And, during that time, how stressed did you get trying to find the best spot possible?

This is your lazy elephant at its finest. The effort that it takes for you to drive around for 10 minutes looking for a parking spot (not to mention the wasted time) far exceeds the extra effort it takes to walk an extra 50 feet. So, a simple solution is to fight your lazy instincts and park further away from the door.

Another easy example is work. Most people work in a space that has stairs available. Yet, in the presence of elevators, stairs take much more effort. So we choose the elevator over the stairs to “save our energy” for the workday ahead. Not anymore, you don’t. And also, about that email you just sent to Bob in accounting, how many steps would it have taken you to get your butt OUT OF THE CHAIR and walk to Bob’s cube and talk to him directly…50 steps? 100 steps? A flight of stairs?

It seems simple (and it is simple) but it’s not easy. In order to begin to turn your lazy elephant into an active elephant, you have to mindful of when you’re making lazy decisions. And when that time pops up, and it will on a regular basis throughout the day, you have to choose the active path to start to win the elephant-rider battle.

As you start to implement these strategies, you’ll immediately feel your energy begin to improve, your aches and pains diminish, and your mental fog begin to lift. You’ll feel your momentum grow as you make progress and move closer toward that best version of yourself.

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Jerry F. Scarlato

Jerry F. Scarlato

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Entrepreneur, Fitness Coach, Performance Specialist, Speaker, Author, cook, endless learner. Check more out: www.jerryscarlato.com