Why Exercise Isn't Enough
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
LifeTime WeightLoss in Exercise, Lifestyle, Movement, Tom Nikkola, movement

How active you are really?

Take a minute to consider this. How much of a day's time are you actually engaged in movement?

Are you on your feet and moving around all day long, or are you just busy with activities that keep you locked into a desk chair or a driver’s seat?

For many years, we’ve heard we should get 2.5 hours of exercise each week to maintain our health. With a goal of 2.5 hours of exercise per week and a target of eight hours of sleep each night, that leaves us with 109.5 hours left.

Is it okay to sit for those hours as long as we put in our “requisite” exercise? What if we exercise for an hour six days per week and sit for the rest of the time? Is that okay as long as we train hard when we do work out?

Study Results: Sitting vs. Exercise vs. Movement

The study, published in February by the Public Library of Science (PLOS), compared a typical lifestyle plan defined by an hour each day spent walking and another hour spent standing (Sitting protocol in the table below) against two other protocols. In reality, an entire hour of walking may be higher than what most people accomplish in a day.

In the second part of the study (Exercise protocol), participants spent one less hour per day sitting and added an hour of exercise. This could be similar to what the average gym-goer does. They squeeze in an hour of exercise and spend most of the rest of the day sitting.

The third part of the study (Movement protocol) didn’t include any exercise regimen but did include more very low intensity movement. The participants were instructed to walk at a leisurely pace five hours per day and stand for two.

As you can see from the table below, both the exercise group and the walking group expended more energy than the sedentary group, but the difference between the exercising and the walking protocols resulted in about the same amount of energy burned each day.

That’s how the study was designed. The researchers wanted to compare the effects of moving more throughout the day against a more intense, shorter duration period of exercise, but wanted the overall energy expenditure to be the same between the groups.

The 79 calorie difference between the groups (2407 vs 2486) is relatively insignificant, especially because the expenditure was based on estimates from their activity monitors.

What’s interesting about this study is that the participants were exercising more than the standard advice of 150 minutes per week. What were the end results?

The Movement protocol resulted in, by far, the largest drop in triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, and fasting insulin levels as well as the most improvement in HDL cholesterol levels. The Exercise protocol created better results in all those measures than the Sitting protocol but nowhere near what the Movement protocol created.

Even though the Movement protocol and Exercise protocol resulted in about the same amount of energy expenditure, moving more with less intensity improved these blood parameters better than moving less frequently with greater intensity!

Is Movement Better Than Exercise?

Looking at the results of this short-term study, you may surmise that simply moving at a low-intensity level for more of your day is better than exercising with greater intensity for a short-period of time. In the measures of triglycerides, cholesterol and insulin (at least in the short-term) that seems to be the case.

However, remember that a proper exercise session enhances health in other ways, such as improved bone density, better maintenance or increases in lean body mass, improved coordination and range of motion, strength, speed, and an increased capacity to store carbohydrates (glycogen).

The biggest take home message from this study is a good reminder that exercising each day shouldn’t be used as a reason to sit the remaining hours of the day. If that sounds like you, I’d recommend keeping track of how active you are outside of your workouts.

Committing to 10,000 steps every day (with most of these outside of your workout session) is a good way to hold yourself accountable. It isn’t the magic in the steps themselves, but the fact that they can be easily measured. Your step count can provide immediate, meaningful feedback to you about whether you’re moving enough or not.

Movement isn’t better than exercise any more than protein is more important than vegetables. They’re both equally important for long-term health. If you’re in the habit of exercising, you should consider how to get more movement throughout the day.

If you don’t do either today, starting with a movement plan can be a less intimidating way to get your program going. If you only do low intensity activity like walking, you really do need to consider getting some guidance on a structured exercise program that incorporates some cardiovascular exercise and strength training.

What’s More Important, More Movement or Less Sitting?

In recent years, more attention has been placed on what’s really going on with the body’s metabolism while it sits. Historically, recommendations said to move more because experts emphasized that people would burn more calories. Obviously, the calorie balance equation is riddled with flaws. Moving more probably doesn’t improve health by just burning a few extra calories.

Instead, sitting less may keep the body from slowing down its metabolic rate and may also keep it from becoming more resistant to insulin. Excessive sitting has been shown to decrease insulin sensitivity and increase lipid levels in both animals and in humans.

Even in the study above, those who exercised more intensely didn’t achieve the same lipid and insulin benefits as they did when they just moved more during the day. The longer one sits still, the more of an effect it has on one’s metabolism. Simply getting up and moving at least once per hour may offset some of the negative effects of sitting.


There’s much more to be learned about the effect of our sedentary lifestyles. For now, reject the idea that your one-hour-per-day workout ensures optimal health. Get that workout in, but be sure to move throughout the day as well.

If moving isn’t part of the culture where you work, try starting a new trend. See if you can wrap up meetings early to allow for 10 minutes to walk between meetings. Take the longest route from one part of your building to another. Set an alarm so you get up and take a short walk once an hour if you have a habit of sitting for extended periods of time.

Movement is not the solution to improved health, but it’s a significant part of the solution. From our perspective, it’s one of the five key areas we focus on with our clients’ programs.

Would you like more information or guidance on designing a movement or exercise plan? Talk with one of our fitness professionals today. Thanks for reading.

Written by Tom Nikkola - Former Sr. Director of Nutrition & Weight Management 

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

Article originally appeared on LifeTime WeightLoss (http://www.lifetime-weightloss.com/).
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