Chances are, you know being active is vital to your health. If you ’re like most people, you may feel like you ’re doing a good job staving off major health issues by hitting that spin class before work, getting some yoga in during your lunch break, or hitting the gym for some strength training after work.
However, new research indicates that people who work out for at least 30 minutes a day and then proceed to spend a good deal of their day sitting at their desks or being sedentary may not be avoiding those major health risks as much as they ’d like to think. A new term has even been coined: the “active couch potato.”
The study looked at seven consecutive days of data from more than 3,700 46-year-olds wearing hip accelerometers. Researchers set up the study to understand how certain exercise patterns affected participants' cardiometabolic health, which considers the collective health risks associated with body mass index (BMI), blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, and history of cardiovascular disease.
Based on findings from the study researchers were able to divide the participants into four categories based on activity levels: active couch potatoes, sedentary light movers, sedentary exercisers, and movers.
A little less than a third of the group were considered “active couch potatoes” who exercised for a short period each day before settling in for 10 to 12 hours of work. Despite being sufficiently active, this group showed elevated blood sugar and cholesterol levels (two precursors for heart disease and stroke).
Meanwhile, the “movers,” who accounted for just 17% of the group, worked out for about an hour each day in addition to two hours of light movement throughout the day. This group had the best cardiorespiratory indicators. Sedentary light movers made up the majority of the group.
Before you throw your hands up in defeat, David McCarthy, MS, a certified personal trainer and Regional Director for Texas Health Fitness Centers, says there are many variables to consider with this study.
"The most important aspect of this study comes down to one word, AWARENESS,” McCarthy says. “In my experience, many clients and fitness center members feel they are getting adequate exercise and movement throughout the day. Realistically, it is very easy to overestimate your activity and undersell the ‘coach potato’ time! Getting on a regularly scheduled and structured workout program is great and a huge aspect of improving health.
“However, there are many simple things we all can do throughout the day to increase activity,” he adds. “Such as taking the stairs, parking in the back of parking lots to get in extra steps, taking a 15-minute break from work to walk around the building, or even performing a few bodyweight exercises such as squats or pushups off the desk to get the blood flowing. Mini bouts of exercise will increase energy throughout the day and improve overall activity levels.”
As McCarthy mentions, overall movement throughout the day, or movement not related to exercise, holds an important role in your well-being.
The Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS) recommends adults aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise a week — or about 30 minutes a day, five days a week. But what you do (or don ’t do) for the remaining 15 or so hours in your day can often overshadow that physical activity.
“If we are sedentary throughout the day, one moderate workout a day, no matter how well-intentioned, may not be enough to offset the inactivity,” McCarthy says. “For instance, if you have a job that requires you to be seated the majority of the day. When you go home do you continue to sit down again? An hour of exercise is recommended per day but always be mindful of what I like to call ‘active rest.’ Move around the house, go for walks, or even track your steps throughout the day. Awareness is the key!”
The Impact of Sedentary Behavior
Researchers in the study identified three main movement behaviors that most adults spend their days in — sedentary behavior, light-intensity physical activity (LPA), and moderate- to vigorous-intensity activity (MVPA). Recent research indicates a complex interrelationship between these movement behaviors and cardiometabolic health because the time spent in each activity may modify the health-related influences of time spent in any of the other movement behaviors.
For instance, increasing the time spent in MVPA may significantly reduce the negative effects of sedentary time, leading to better cardiometabolic health.
According to results from the study, sedentary light movers had more light physical activity (LPA), sedentary exercisers had more moderate- to vigorous-intensity activity (MVPA), and movers had the most LVP and MVPA of all groups.
Compared with active couch potatoes, sedentary light movers and sedentary exercisers spent less time sedentary each day, while sedentary activities were still a major part of their days, and movers had the least amount of sedentary behavior. However, the optimal combination of LPA and MVPA required to minimize the health risks of excessive sedentary time remains unclear even after looking over the results of the study.
“I think this information really emphasizes the importance of reducing long bouts of sedentary time in order to improve your health,” McCarthy says. “In a way, this study is a bit encouraging knowing that it doesn ’t require a huge effort to improve your health — it just takes a few strategic short sedentary breaks, which actually helps with overall mental focus and productivity, too.”
Researchers acknowledged that sedentary time and physical activity intensities were highly influenced by occupation and environment, not just fitness level, which many people may have minimal control over. Additionally, researchers noted that particular days of the week had a difference on sedentary time than others. Despite having the least amount of sedentary behavior and the most LVP and MVPA of all groups, movers did still have a significant amount (8 hours) of sedentary behavior on weekends versus weekdays.
The researchers have reason to believe that the opposite can be true for those in the other groups, where those who may be more sedentary during the week may have more time and/or energy to get active during the weekend. However, McCarthy warns that a weekend of high activity may not be enough to counteract a week of sedentary behaviors.
“It would be challenging to counteract an entire week of inactivity with a couple of weekend days of activity,” he says. “Think of it like a checking account, you have to balance your budget. The calories you take in are like bills. The only way to pay those bills is through exercise and activity, otherwise, you end up in debt, but this debt comes in the form of extra weight, lowered immune system, fatigue and even illness.”
Upping Your Movement
If you find yourself in the active couch potato group, McCarthy says you ’re not alone — after all, it was the second biggest cohort in the entire study. Her recommendation? Find ways to incorporate more light movement in your day.
“Schedule move breaks into your day. Walk to the water fountain and fill up your water bottle or take a lap around your office building,” he explains. “Find a friend or an office mate to help keep each other accountable. Subtle movements at your desk can also be effective. Marching in place while seated is a great option and even a core exercise. Alternating lifting your heels and your toes while in a seated position is another subtle way to move and stretch your lower body without drawing attention to yourself. Anything to stay mindful and keep you moving throughout the day. Small bouts of exercise can really add up to better health markers.”
It ’s easy to feel like you can ’t win these days, especially with health and fitness, but this study confirms something that we ’ve all heard before: balance is important. Do what you can to find balance by simply eliminating the extremes when it comes to your health. Avoid sitting for an extreme period of time. Avoid extreme stress. Find ways to add balance to your day and you ’ll be on target toward a healthier, happier you.
“Consistency is the No. 1 rule of fitness. You won ’t have a perfect day or perfect week all the time and that ’s okay! As long as you strive for consistent progress instead of perfection you ’ll land in the healthy zone,” McCarthy adds. “Celebrate the small and big wins, focus on building small habits (like move breaks,) create boundaries for your priorities and hold fast to those. Reading a study like this can be discouraging but shouldn’t be! Understanding how much activity you are actually getting is empowering and leads to greater awareness. Seek advice, meet with a personal trainer, make a plan, stick to it, find some accountability and positive changes will surely arrive.”