If you are a healthy, young adult you might not worry too much about staying physically active all the time. How can it hurt if you go through periods when you aren’t really getting much exercise or working out as much as usual?
Well, new research shows exactly how it hurts. It turns out that cutting back on exercise can take a toll on your muscle mass and increase your body fat in a very short period of time.
A study, published in May 2017, found that healthy adults (average age 25) had adverse physical changes after just two weeks of inactivity. These changes in muscle mass and body fat can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions.
“I think it is astonishing that in such a short time these changes occurred,” says endocrinologist Betul Hatipoglu, MD. “It might help explain perhaps why we have an epidemic of obesity and diabetes.”
Previous studies on sedentary behavior have typically focused on special populations, such as astronauts and hospital patients.
“We know that people who sit and stand soon after surgery have less complications, but I have never seen a study that focuses on healthy human beings who were not in a special population group,” Dr. Hatipoglu says.
Thanks to fitness-tracking devices, the activity levels of the 28 people in the study were easy to monitor.
Before the study, the young adults walked an average of 10,000 steps each day, for a total of about 161 minutes. During the 14-day trial, they walked only about 1,500 steps daily, for a total of 36 minutes.
They made no changes to their diet. Food consumption was consistent before and during the study.
Researchers call the physical fitness changes “small but significant.” In addition to less muscle mass and more body fat, participants’ cardio-respiratory fitness levels also declined sharply. And they were unable to run for as long or at the same intensity as they had before the study.
“The [study] results emphasize the importance of remaining physically active, and highlight the dangerous consequences of continuous sedentary behavior,” researchers concluded.
Dr. Hatipoglu recommends walking a minimum of 5,000 steps on weekdays and aiming for 10,000 steps on weekend days. She offers these tips to help you achieve those goals:
1. Wear a fitness tracking device. It’s one of the best ways to avoid a sedentary day, Dr. Hatipoglu says.
“It’s extremely eye-opening for my patients when they use these devices,” she says.
2. Consider getting a dog. Dr. Hatipoglu doesn’t prescribe dogs. But she says she often hears from patients that a four-legged friend is their best motivator to walk.
3. Take regular exercise breaks. If you sit at a desk for long periods, set an alarm every hour and get up and move around for three to five minutes.
4. Park far away from the office or store. “As much as you dread it, it forces you to walk,” she says.
5. Take the long way. Instead of walking the shortest distance to a meeting or even to a colleague’s desk, take a longer route to get more steps in.
6. Try chair yoga. When you are sick or on a tight deadline, it’s harder to find time to walk. But taking a few minutes several times a day to do chair yoga or other sitting exercises can help.
7. Share chores for exercise. If you are a caregiver, don’t do all the chores for the person in your care. Encourage the patient to get up and move around as much as possible every day. Or, if you have a caregiver, make an effort to get up and help yourself as much as you can.
8. Enlist the help of a physical therapist. If your inactivity is becoming more permanent than temporary, get help to get yourself back up to speed.
Dr. Hatipoglu says the study is eye-opening in further illustrating the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle.
“I think this is an amazing study and I will be sharing it with my colleagues and patients,” she says.