Are You an “Active Couch Potato?”

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In the past few years, newspapers, magazines and TV have been broadcasting warnings about the hazards of too much desk time: “Prolonged sitting can make you fat and even kill you!” Now there’s a new twist to the story: The newest research says that even if you work out religiously, if you also have a sedentary job and spend a lot of time in a chair, you may still be at risk! Read on to find out if you’re an “active couch potato” and if so, what you should do about it … couch potato.

Health researchers have been warning us for some time now about the metabolic and health risks of too much sitting. In fact, it made front page headlines last year when British research identified an association between sitting time and mortality risk.

The latest research has added a new twist: Experts are now saying that too much time spent sitting is an independent risk factor for obesity and metabolic health problems separate and distinct from getting too little exercise.

Physiologically, there are distinct effects between prolonged sedentary time and too little exercise time. Research has shown that chronic unbroken periods of muscular unloading associated with prolonged sedentary time can have negative biological consequences.

Even though there are very low levels of calorie expenditure from standing still, standing elicits electromyographic and hormonal changes. NASA has done extensive zero gravity research showing the metabolic consequences of extreme muscular unloading and there are interesting parallels being drawn here.

Physiologically, it has been suggested that that loss of local muscle contractual stimulation due to sitting leads to suppression of skeletal muscle lipoprotein lipase activity and glucose uptake. By contrast, the mere act of standing involves isometric contraction of the anti-gravity (postural) muscles. Yet in the past, standing still would have been called “sedentary” behavior.

There’s another new wrinkle in the story: The latest research also suggests that you could meet what is considered an ideal guideline for physical activity, but if you also sit for extremely long periods, there could still be negative consequences. In other words, your formal workouts may not undo some of the negative consequences of long periods of sitting.

They have actually coined a name for this phenomenon – “THE ACTIVE COUCH POTATO”

An example is the person who works out regularly, or even jogs or bikes to and from work, but who sits all day long at his job for 8 or more hours and then spends several hours watching TV or surfing the internet in the evening.

One study found a strong association between metabolic risk and TV watching time even when physical activity was 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous exercise! They also said that this association may be stronger in women than in men.

Because these types of studies only show associations, it’s very difficult to say with certainly that too much sitting specifically causes adverse health consequences. However, better scientific measurement with tools such as accelerometers has given us more insights than the older studies that were based only on surveys of self-reported TV and sitting time.

It is also very difficult and always has been, for health organizations to make broad physical activity guidelines for the entire general population.

Nevertheless, the latest research is pushing fitness experts and public health officials to send more messages that include not only guidelines on how much and what kind of formal exercise to do, but also to specifically reduce sedentary behaviors like TV watching and computer time.

They’re also calling for a distinction between too much sedentary time (particularly sitting) and too little exercise. In particular, they’re recommending that you break up sitting time whenever that’s possible.

Researchers in the Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study found beneficial associations in metabolic risk markers just from the presence of breaks in sedentary time. That could be as simple as transitioning from sitting to standing or from standing still to starting to walk. They also found an association between a higher number of breaks in sitting time and beneficial changes in waist circumference, BMI, triglycerides and blood glucose.

When news reports hit the media previously about the sitting – obesity – health connection, some people shrugged it off as common sense or inconsequential. However, I think the idea that you might be an “active couch potato” is not something to shrug off at all, because unless you work out formally in addition to holding a physically-active job, the active couch potato group includes the majority of fitness-conscious people in our modern, technologically-based society today.

Many people work out diligently at least a few days per week, but they sit behind a desk for 8 hours without more than a lunch and bathroom break or two, and then when they get home, it’s straight for the couch/TV or the computer/internet.

A strong focus on nutrition and portion control can ensure weight loss despite a low activity level, but according to these latest findings, a minimalist workout program may not be enough to overcome all the negative health effects of an otherwise sedentary lifestyle.

Considering the increasing amount of time people are spending on the computer/internet, and the way technology has changed all of our lives since the obesity crisis started to escalate, I believe this is a message to be taken seriously. It got my attention on a personal level because it wasn’t so long ago that my lifestyle changed in a way that put me behind a desk and in front of a computer even more than most nine to fivers.

For nearly a decade and a half, I worked in health clubs, where I was up on my feet and on the gym floor the majority of the day, as a personal trainer and club manager. When I became a full-time writer, researcher, author and internet publisher, I found myself glued to a desk and computer screen for 10-12 hours a day, sometimes longer.

Many people agree that too much sitting time is a legitimate concern, but have responded to this latest health news with exasperation because they feel trapped by virtue of their 9 to 5 desk jobs. We are a knowledge and technology based society today and we’re not going backwards to a predominantly labor-based society any time in the near future.

But that’s not something to get frustrated about. I’m now in the same boat myself, but I’ve stayed in great shape with great health and so can you. The solutions are simple:

1. Break up your sitting time as much as possible if prolonged sitting time is unavoidable. Stand more if you can, get up out of your chair at regular intervals and stretch or do a few non-sweat-inducing exercises and walk around at every opportunity .

2. Substitute sedentary leisure time with physical leisure time. Take a portion of your sedentary leisure time, particularly TV and web surfing, and replace it with active but fun leisure activities like sports, recreation, house or garden work, physical hobby work and walking. (one of my favorites: watch TV while you’re on a bike, treadmill or stepper).

3. Increase your daily physical activity beyond the gym. Think constantly about how you can move more and live a more active lifestyle – every single day. (Do some research on NEAT: non-exercise activity thermogenesis and consider using a pedometer or motion/calorie-tracking device – it can be a real eye-opener)

4. Continue diligently with your formal training programs including at least 3 weekly resistance training sessions and 2-3 moderate to intense cardio training sessions of your choosing. In my experience, when you get up around 5 or more hours of moderate to vigorous training every week, when combined with good nutrition, that can go a long way toward offsetting the effects of a sedentary job on body composition.

5. Remember, nutrition is priority #1 – it’s possible to out-eat even the most active lifestyle. If you’re active, but still struggling with body fat, then your nutrition may need an overhaul. You can learn more about fat-burning nutrition at the Burn the Fat website

Tom Venuto

Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural (steroid-free) bodybuilder, freelance writer and author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle (e-book) and the national bestseller, The Body Fat Solution (Avery/Penguin, hardcover). Tom’s articles are featured on hundreds of websites worldwide and he has been featured in IRONMAN, Australian IRONMAN, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development, Men’s Fitness, Men’s Exercise as well as on dozens of radio shows including Martha Stewart healthy living (Sirius), ESPN-1250, WCBS and BlogTalk Radio. Tom is also the founder and CEO of the premier fat loss support community, the Burn The Fat Inner Circle

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