Americans are becoming more and more sedentary[1]. Working at a desk, watching television, playing videogames, and driving everywhere are just a few examples of common sedentary behaviors.   What I mean is that most of us are not physically active at our jobs, during our leisure-time or any other time of the day, just because we don’t need to. We are not even walking anymore. Did you know that a sedentary person may only take between 1,000 and 3,000 steps a day[2]? This is way less than the Surgeon General’s recommendation[3]. I know that many American cities are not exactly walking-friendly. Think about where you live for a second. Are there stores within walking distance, or do you have to drive to the closest grocery shop? My point is that unless you are willing to exercise, you probably won’t run errands on foot.

And not many people are willing to. Recent statistics show that 33% of American adults are considered inactive[4]. The problem is that the human body was designed to move, and whenever we stop or limit our activities, our brain slows down our metabolism[5] and cuts back on muscle mass (just because if we are not using it, we probably don’t need it). Also, lack of regular physical activity is linked to several debilitating conditions such as cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and some types of cancer.

Another fact that contributes to America’s current health status is that most of us spend a good part of the day seated (at a desk, on the couch, in our cars). A new research suggested that long periods of uninterrupted sitting can cause metabolic disturbances, leading to chronic diseases[6].

So, leading active lifestyles is fundamental to the maintenance of good health. The problem is that the most accepted guidelines[7] recommend a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise at least five days a week. This is the recommendation for attaining general fitness. However, if your goal is to lose weight, you will probably have to accumulate between 250 and 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week. For someone who is currently sedentary and deconditioned, these guidelines seem quite hard, if not impossible, to follow.

The good news is that recent research points out that even small amounts of regular physical activity can have positive effects on both physical and mental health. And by physical activity, I mean anything that gets you moving, not only structured exercise.

Here are a few tips to get you from a couch potato to an active savvy lady:

1. Reserve time to exercise.

Lack of time is the most common excuse for not engaging in regular physical activity. Even though I understand that our jobs, family affairs, and household chores take up a great chunk of our time, it is important that we save time to take care of ourselves. The truth is that you will never find time to exercise if it is not a priority for you. If you want to fit exercise into your life, you’ll have to make time for it. Don’t worry; you won’t need a lot of time.

I know that when we think of exercise, the image of a gym or a health club comes to our minds. But you don’t have to commit to a membership to get your exercise fix. You can exercise on your own, in the comfort of your home. All you need is a little space and a DVD player. There are so many fitness videos available today that I’m sure you’ll find something you like. Consider purchasing a few of them, and then swap with friends when you are tired of yours. It is also a good idea to have different options to accommodate your energy level and mood. For example, yoga for when you are feeling mellow, and boot-camp for more energetic days.

The advantage of working out at home is that you can exercise at different times of the day to suit your needs. But for this to work in the long run, you have to reserve a slot in your schedule. When planning your workout session, consider how much time you have available. It can be 15, 30, 45 minutes; you don’t have to use a whole hour. Remember that some exercise is always better than none. It is also important to choose a time when you know you won’t be interrupted. Create the right environment, and you will be more likely to stick to your plan.

2. Invest in activities you enjoy.

Getting a gym membership to force yourself to exercise won’t work in the long run if you don’t feel comfortable there. The secret is to engage in activities that thrill you. And you won’t necessarily find those in a regular health club. Think outside the box. Do you like dancing? Find a ballroom or salsa class. Or do you prefer exercising outdoors? Joining a hiking club can get you active and double as a social network. And don’t think you are stuck to a single activity. You can always look for something new when you start to see your interest fade. The bottom line is that if you choose an activity you love, showing up for class won’t be an issue.

3. Experience active living.

Up to this point, I’ve only talked about structured exercise and leisure-time activities. But what about the things we have to do during our day such as household chores? Can they count as physical activity? Absolutely.  As I said before, anything that makes you get off your butt counts as activity. So use the household chores for your own benefit. Scrubbing the bathroom floor can be a great upper body workout. Did you know that you can burn around 230 calories per hour while vacuuming[8]? It is almost the same as walking at a moderate pace for one hour. So, get your duster and get busy.

 

For more information on caloric expenditure during household activities check this link: http://caloriecount.about.com/activities-home-activities-ac5.

4. Purchase a pedometer.

Walking is also a simple way to introduce exercise into your life. You’ve probably heard of the recommendation of taking at least 10,000 steps a day. This corresponds to around five miles. Although it seems like a lot, every step taken during the whole day counts, even when you are at home. The important thing is to keep you moving.

For sedentary people, a pedometer is a great way to keep track of physical activity during the day. This piece of equipment is inexpensive (you can get one for five bucks) and light, which makes it comfortable to be worn for long periods of time. It is also a great motivating tool – you’ll find yourself walking more often, just because you are paying attention to it.

5. Disrupt long periods of slouch.

Long periods of sedentary behavior such as sitting can have a deleterious effect on health and contribute to the development of several chronic diseases. The problem is that most of us have sedentary jobs, sitting behind a desk in front of a computer. No, don’t quit your job just yet. Instead, get off your chair every hour (set a timer, if you need to), and walk around your office. Also, performing a few stretches can help you relax tight muscles and improve blood circulation.

Interrupting prolonged periods of slouch is also a good opportunity to realign the body. When sitting for too long, the lumbar region is overcharged, which often results in lower back pain [9]. Create a state of awareness by readjusting your posture frequently. First, stand tall, lengthening your spine. Imagine that there is a string pulling your head up. Hold your chest up high, pull your shoulder blades back, and then, press them down. Keeping your shoulders down and away from your ears will lengthen your neck. Finally, engage your abdominals, tucking in your pelvis. Consider it as a drill that should be performed a few times a day until these adjustments become natural.

And don’t forget about TV time. Use the commercial breaks to perform short bursts of exercise such as push-ups or a quick run up the stairs. If you do this on a regular basis, I doubt that you’ll need a gym to become fit.

6. Start a fitness journal.

If you want to keep track of your activity routine, consider writing it down. A fitness journal is a great way to assess how much exercise you are getting. Briefly describe the activity, the intensity (how hard or easy it was for you), and for how long you’ve performed it. You can even register your thoughts and emotions, if you’d like. Don’t forget that everything counts (cleaning, gardening, even grocery shopping).

By the end of the week, add the time spent in each activity. Keep in mind that the current guidelines suggest you to get around 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. But if you are not there yet, don’t give up. Compare your progress on a weekly basis. This is a great way to keep you motivated, and you’ll probably catch yourself trying to fit some kind of physical activity into your day, just to achieve your goal.

 


[1] By definition, the term sedentary refers to the tendency of sitting about without taking much exercise. (World English Dictionary)

[3] For more information see http://www.shapeup.org/shape/steps.php

[5] The term “metabolism” refers to all biochemical processes that happen within the body to keep it working properly. However, it is commonly known as the breakdown of food in order to obtain energy.

[6] “The Science of Sedentary Behavior: Too Much Sitting and Too Little Exercise”. Available at http://www.acsm.org/am/template.cfm?section=home_page&template=/cm/contentdisplay.cfm&contentid=12889

[7] Supported by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the American Heart Association (AHA), the US Department of Health and Human Services, and the World Health Organization (WHO).

[9] The abdominal muscles and the lumbar muscles are supposed to work together in order to hold the upper body weight which is essential for the maintenance of proper posture. However, when the abdominals are weak or simply not engaged, the lower back muscles have to do all the work alone, which places considerable stress on the lumbar spine, increasing the risk of injuries.