Levels of Physical Activity: Are You Exercising or Training?
Level 1: Amateur
Welcome Players! Being in good health is to not only avoid bad health, but to live at the top range of our potential, not the bottom. You’ll learn how health influences your performance, why it’s important to resist a sedentary lifestyle, and how you can incorporate and compound your physical health to feel better, move better, and live better. Let’s go!
Risks of Being Sedentary
Next Steps: Exercise
A Little Thing Called Life
Train to Live
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Sedentary: A Medical Condition
Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, human culture & society has progressed far more technologically than we could have ever expected. The innovation in all sectors improves efficiency, decreases work, and capitalizes on costs saved. All good things! One major unintended side-effect of this improvement is that with each new advancement coincidentally removes a human from activity.
Walking was replaced by horse and buggy was replaced by cars.
Food harvesting was made easier by tools and now is nearly replaced in full by automation.
Manufacturing and production used to hinge on the back of skilled labor workers, who are now on the edge of extinction.
We’ve created machines to make every physical task easier. For good reason, but nevertheless our constant need for improvement has led us to a natural selection that favors mental processing over physical capabilities without question. Sedentary jobs have increased by 83% since 1950!
It’s pretty wild to think that in less than 200 years human civilization has progressed from building with physical effort to almost universally building with mental capacity. Movement is scarce; look no further than the increasing average life expectancy while the average healthy life expectancy is decreasing (LINK). AKA thanks to modern medicine our lifespan is getting longer, but the quality of those years over time is decreasing.
there is one area where the introduction of technology and modern lifestyle has undoubtedly become harmful: our chronic health. The United States specifically is experiencing never before seen levels of public health decline. While modern healthcare has become advanced in acute treatments of trauma and infection, it has woefully lagged in identifying cures for deadly chronic disease.
Obesity. Heart disease. High blood pressure. Stroke. Diabetes. Alzheimers. Certain cancers. Osteoporosis. Sarcopenia. Depression. Anxiety. Metabolic syndrome. Substance Addiction.
All these diseases have one thing in common: a sedentary lifestyle.
This paper reports findings that being sedentary increases risk for 35 (yes, thirty-five) diseases and chronic conditions. The lack of movement in modern society has introduced an entire new form of disease. the sitting sickness. This is an actual medical term!
Sedentary behaviors lower cardiac output while activating the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight), reducing insulin sensitivity and vascular function. Think about that important email or text you open up that makes your heart race, face get flush, and brain works in high-gear to process everything you need to do, all while producing no physical movement! Sedentary behaviors have a range of negative effects such as increasing all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease mortality, and risks of metabolic disorders such as diabetes, high blood pressure, elevating levels of chronic inflammation that can contribute to increased cancer risk; musculoskeletal disorders such as joint pain and osteoporosis; depression; and, cognitive impairment (SOURCE).
Let’s look at the statistics in the United States:
Heart Disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women (SOURCE)
Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, is the No. 1 cause of kidney failure, lower-limb amputations, and adult blindness. In the last 20 years, the number of adults diagnosed with diabetes has more than doubled. (SOURCE)
Certainly the argument should be clear that living a sedentary, motion-less life can and will kill you, given enough time. The ill-health effects are vast and compounding, limiting not only length of life but quality as well.
Ok, being still is scary, and bad. And if I sit for a long period of time I can get the sitting sickness… so, let’s stand! Introducing the super-expensive desks that go up and down. Woo! Problem solved, right? Wrong.
The problem isn’t sitting itself. What makes being sedentary so dangerous is not the position you do it in, it is the inherent lack of exposure to movement!
The human body evolved to move and move often. Our brain craves unique movement experiences, variety, and exposure to different environments. From sensory perception to motor-output, the more you move the more robust your physical expression becomes.
The human body also has one feature that makes us the most powerful animal on the planet: the ability to adapt. If you repeat the same physical task over and over again, our bodies will adapt to complete that task with less perceived effort and with greater efficiency, thus reducing the output required to complete it. As a survival skill, this is fantastic! But when it comes to developing some sort of routine or pattern, our enhanced ability to adapt will offer a decline in expected returns over time.
This means that the 1-mile walk that you take during the day burns a lot less calories the 20th time you do it versus the first time you did it. You got better at walking! Seriously, you did. Your body optimized its striking pattern so that you had better rhythm, and started rotating your torso and arms to increase the efficiency with which you step. Your heart got used to pumping more blood and as such your breathing got a little deeper. Positive chemicals that were released to your brain don’t have the same impact anymore either. Did the enjoyment go down? Probably not. But your body began adapting. If you want to retrieve the same physiological effects that you did when you started walking, you’ll need to now walk a little more.
How ‘Active’ is Active?
That’s a good question. There is no default standard for what an adequate amount of activity you should be getting in a day.
According to the US Government’s Physical Activity Guidelines:
Adults should move more and sit less throughout the day. Some physical activity is better than none. Adults who sit less and do any amount of moderate-to- vigorous physical activity gain some health benefits.
For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Preferably, aerobic activity should be spread throughout the week.
Additional health benefits are gained by engaging in physical activity beyond the equivalent of 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.
Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity and that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week, as these activities provide additional health benefits.
The CDC provides some further examples and more resources HERE.
Other ways to gauge activity come in the form of data, such as calculating in the form of MET’s, where one metabolic equivalent (MET) is the amount of oxygen consumed while sitting at rest (1 MET = 3.5 ml O2/kg/bw per min). It’s a rough form of figuring out how much work or energy your body is expending to do something. In the US Govt. guidelines above, “moderate-intensity physical activity” would be activities that use between 3-6 METs. Examples are walking briskly, vacuuming, or raking leaves.
We will have to dedicate a separate space in the future for an in-depth exploration of what biometric variables are valuable and how we can utilize them in training to benefit our health & performance, as well as discuss the different technologies available to aid in the process.
No Right Answer
Put simply, while the most common recommendations and guidelines are certainly great minimums, it is difficult to definitively say exactly how much activity you need to have in your life to be moving towards a state of improved health.
The reality is the more active you are the healthier you are, and the better you’ll reap the positive rewards. Let’s work backwards from an ideal situation, and see if you can associate where in the spectrum your activity levels lie.
In a perfect world, you day is only filled with sedentary actions during devoted periods of rest, feeding, or relaxation. Your activities related to seeking and preparing food require physical exertion (picking fruits/vegetables, hunting game). Your time spent with others is in playful settings, bonus if there’s a game or competition aspect. You walk/run frequently as a means to get around, and spend no time on furniture, you actually don’t even have furniture aside from a loose bed.2
Ok, so maybe you don’t live off the land like an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon. Fine. Maybe we should work forwards in examples from the easiest things to implement and progress from there.
The simplest way to integrate activity into your life is to first pair a physical activity with a goal or intention that you have a genuine desire to improve. For example, you can start walking with the goal of walking a 15-minute mile. Or you can take the stairs to get to your apartment instead of the elevator. While these things seem trivial, they truly make a big difference when you compound them over time. No different than investing, the earlier and more often you contribute to your Activity Bank the greater rewards it will pay as you age.
Play the Game
Sports are the biggest bang-for-your buck way to drastically improve physical fitness and ensure high levels of quality activity or movement. The more sports you play/participate in the better. They don’t just have to be organized sports either, sports such as yoga, surfing, cycling, skateboarding, bicycle riding, roller-blading, swimming, etc. are all fair game (pun intended).
Do the Thing
Adventurous hobbies are also in the top tier of great ways to improve overall health and fitness. Things such as camping, hiking, sightseeing, bird-watching, park-exploring, fishing, etc. require large amounts of activity and can be a great way to spend time while improving your physical health.
Find Something You Enjoy
If you think you’re an “indoors person” and there’s really no category of activity that you enjoy, I’d urge you to reconsider now. More likely than not you’ve just yet to discover something that sparks your inner childlike interest.
Next Steps: Exercise
If you truly can’t find a physical activity that interests you, then structured exercise should be implemented in order to maintain any form of physical fitness. Here’s what it means to exercise:
Exercise (n): activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness.
Hm. Funny enough, exercise is a word whose definition is solely to fulfill the need to improve health and fitness. If there were not such a drastic deficit in national and global health, would the word still come to mean the same thing?
I’d think likely not. Imagine running along the farm to pick strawberries, would that be called exercise? Or pulling up onto a tree branch in order to pick an apple? Or rowing a canoe up the river to catch salmon. These are all activities! And natural to a good life at that. We don’t do them for the sake of doing them, we participate in the activity for the achievement or reward at the end, and are happy and willing to do so. The climb is certainly worth the apple, and the effort for the fish matches the reward. The lack of this relationship in structured exercise makes it difficult to mimic the same results.
Back to this made-up word of exercising. Where do we start. Go to the gym and start lifting weights? Maybe look up a program online? Or just pick up from the old workout you used to do a few years ago? Not so fast.
Consider all the forms of exercise you can do. There’s quite a lot. Resistance training, weightlifting, HIIT workouts, bodybuilding, cardio machines, the hundreds of fitness classes and bootcamps that run in every gym studio across America.
The first question you need to answer is,
What’s your goal?
If your goal is to exercise for the sake of exercise and improve your levels of activity, then you should opt for the method of exercise that balances what you enjoy with what fits in your schedule. This could be a circuit-style workout class twice a week, dedicating three sessions a week to Pilates, or hiring a personal trainer.
If your goal includes accomplishing something in addition to personal health and wellness improvement, well then you can begin to narrow down the available choices.
Want to lose weight? Opt for a form of exercise that encourages a intervals of high work intensity with those of lower, where caloric expenditure accumulates over time.
Want to gain muscle? Forms of weightlifting that include resistance are preferred for this. Getting stronger and building muscle go hand in hand.
Want to improve your cardiovascular health? Forms of high intensity exercise or sustained levels of moderate intensities can greatly improve heart health.
Choosing which form of exercise to participate in is the relatively easy part. Now you just have to *checks notes* do that exercise consistently for the rest of your life!
A Little Thing Called Life
The hardest part about sticking to exercise is that doing something just for the sake of doing it gets old fast. It’s boring, repetitive, monotonous, the list goes on. In order to continue requires incredible amounts of effort, dedication, and consistency. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.
When life throws curveballs, the first thing to go is the exercise. Get a new job? Moving cities? Have a family? When real-world problems or obligations come up, other things take priority. If you’re not careful about what you put time towards, exercise can get squeezed out real fast.
For some people it’s the new event resolution. The New Year, birthday, marriage, hell even a spur of the moment commitment can all spark a desire to “get in shape” or improve your health. But does that gym membership that comes out of the spur of the moment motivation create a long life of increased activity and health outcomes? Unfortunately rarely is this the case. 50% of gym memberships are discontinued within the first 6 months, and the average lifespan of a gym membership is a little over four years (IHRSA).
In truth, the real reason most people don’t achieve their physical goals is because they don’t value the result bad enough. They don’t want to work as hard as it takes to look the way they want. They don’t want to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve the results, even though they know they should. Deep down they don’t value the thing they say they want as much as they say they do. If they did, they would overcome the obstacles! The root cause is the value of the result! If you want to build a lifetime of activity and wellness, you must work to change the value you place on your health for the better: to truly value and care about how you feel and the ability at which you live.
To know what someone truly values, ignore what they say and look at how they spend their time.
If exercise is for the most part an unsustainable process created to combat the decline of physical health, then what is the solution?
Training (n): the action of teaching [a person] a particular skill or type of behavior
You must find something that ignites your passion. Something that requires physical effort, the greater the intensity the better. You see, when you’re passionate about something you inherently place the highest internal value upon the ability with which you perform at that task. The more passionate you are, the less willing you are to accept failure or inadequacy.
Passionate about chess? You’ll practice on end so that you can beat your opponent.
Passionate about running? You’ll get up every day to log the miles because you know it’s what is necessary to improve.
Passionate about Weightlifting? You’ll carefully plan out and measure all of your nutrition to ensure you’re properly fueling yourself for training because you know it’s required to get stronger.
The passion and internal value of being good at a sport or skill is what motivates people to improve. To practice. What’s the motivation to exercise? Because you know if you don’t your physical health will slowly decline over decades? Human psychology is powerful in the sense that we can know what’s good for us, but still choose the short-term reward over the long-term benefit.
If you truly want to get in shape, take back control of your physical health, spend some serious time learning about yourself. What you love(d) to do. Something that requires physical effort. And when you think you’ve got something, ask yourself, “Do I love this thing (or activity) enough to internally want to improve at it? Do I value being good at this skill enough to place a higher level of importance over other tasks I have to do in my life?” If the answer is NO, keep looking. If the answer is YES, get started!
You might not find your favorite hobby on the first selection, and that’s ok. You might pick something, try it for a while, and grow tired of it. No problem, that happens. Pick something else! It’s entirely possible to love the beginning stages of improvement, and grow weary once adequacy is achieved. Other people prefer the pursuit of mastery. Whether you practice one kick 10,000 times, or 10,000 kicks once, the importance of practice is the emphasis.
Your mental investment is the glue that holds your practice together. It’s what will make the hard days easier, what will drag you out of bed at your lows, and what dumps extreme levels of reward on your brain once you are successful. It’s not just completion of a task that elicits a reward in our brain. The reward we feel is directly related to how hard we’ve worked to achieve that success! (SOURCE)
Beat a 10-year old at checkers, you’re probably not going to feel too much better than had you not.
Spend 10-years to earn the rank National Master, and you’re certainly in for a copious amount of satisfaction!
When you are internally motivated to practice a physical task or skill, and then you spend the time and effort to do so, all of the physical variables of fitness will become accessory to your improvement at your activity!
Train for Life
Moral of the story: If you want to truly enact positive change in your life to improve your physical health, you must incorporate a physical passion into your life.
Think long and hard about physical activities you enjoy doing, used to enjoy, or think you might enjoy. Make a list. Rank them in order. You can even expand them into what skills or physical requirements they would improve.
Then, start trying them! Wait until you find one that won’t leave your mind when you go to sleep at night. When you wake up in the morning thinking about how you can best structure your day to maximize the time spent doing this activity. The one where you buy a few books or online videos that help teach you certain techniques. When your significant other or friend starts asking you, “Why are you spending so much time doing ______?” that’s how you’ll know you’re on the right track.
You see, being physically healthy is more closely related to following a physical passion than it is with structured routines of exercise.
The United States has entered two epidemics, the first being the physical health / chronic disease crisis, the second being that they think exercise and gyms are the way to fix it!
One is a problem rooted in lack of passion and activity, the other is a business model sold to you as the solution! Wake up!!! Find something you love to do. Do it more. Do it harder. One day in the not-so-distant future, you’ll be in better shape than you thought. You’ll have forgotten that you picked up this hobby because you were un-healthy and lacked fitness. You’ll just be glad that your Saturday morning tennis opponent has a poor backhand and you plan to hit it to their weak hand all day. Ah, it feels good to have practiced that shot for years and be able to expose someone else’s weakness. When they complain that you have had so much more time to practice than they do, and that you’re lucky you don’t have as much work to do at the office as them, all you hear is that they don’t value winning as much as losing.
Good thing you do.
Data from 2014
You may think this scenario is far-fetched or an exaggeration, and while it may be the latter it is without a doubt the best option. A free-spirited way of life may not conform to our current society or culture, but it is without a doubt a better feeding of life to the physical human.