The (surprising) downside to exercise

Mind Shift is a new blog series where I turn my fascination with body-nerd research into bite-sized info chunks, designed to help you shift the way you think about–and live in–your body.


The start of a new year is a time when many of us dust off our workout gear and head to the gym, so it’s the perfect time to talk about a very important distinction: exercise versus movement.

They’re the same, right?

Nope. And the difference holds the key to creating a healthier life, so let’s get into it.

When we think of exercise, we’re typically referring to specific activities done for the purpose of improving our physical health—perhaps lifting weights to build more muscle mass or jogging to enhance cardiovascular fitness. This creates a distinction between the movements your body does, say, during a fitness run or a yoga class versus the movements your body does throughout the rest of the day.

Why should you care? In this post, we’ll cover Reason Number One: time. Unless you’re an athlete or fitness professional, exercise usually takes up a relatively small portion of your waking hours. Even if you exercise for one hour, seven days a week—something many of us would consider to be a high level of physical activity–that’s a small percentage of your life spent moving.

Let’s do the math: Assuming you sleep eight hours a night, that leaves you with 16 waking hours a day, or 112 hours in a week. If seven of those hours are spent exercising, that’s 6% of your waking time. Scientists have coined a term, “active sedentarism,” to describe this scenario that many of us are living in.

When we look at the numbers, I’m not sure many of us would consider moving 6% of our waking time to be sufficient for health, although we’re so embedded in our sedentary culture, it’s sometimes tricky to really see things for what they are, so compare it with this: If someone told you that they ate a healthy diet 6% of the time, and then ate McDonalds the other 94%, would you consider that to be a “healthy diet”? I doubt it.

When we equate “valuable movement” with “exercise,” we’re then in the position of trying to find more time in our already jam-packed days to get to the gym or go for a run, because we’ve decided that those are the only kinds of movement that “count” in terms of our health.

When we shift from trying to get more exercise to trying to get more movement, we begin to see all the different ways that we are—or are not—moving throughout the entire day, and we can make tiny changes that really add up, much more so than the 6% of time we’re able to make it to the gym.

Outside of our exercise time, we tend to think in terms of conserving our energy, and thus, minimizing movements. For example, our kitchens might be arranged to minimize how much stooping, bending, reaching, or squatting we have to do to prepare food, because how many of us consider squatting down to get something from a low cupboard important to our health?  And then when it’s time to eat, we reflexively sit down in a chair.

When we view exercise as the only means of getting valuable movement into the day, we mentally check out the other 94% of the time, missing numerous opportunities to move our bodies and increase our wellbeing.

Starting right now, how can you sneak more movement into your day by doing things that you’d be doing anyway, just a little differently?

Can you put your coffee grounds on the top shelf and your mugs on the bottom, creating opportunities for reaching and stretching and squatting? Free CrossFit in the comfort of your own kitchen!

Can you sit on the floor while eating breakfast, and let your body indicate when it’s time to shift positions, perhaps sitting cross legged, then legs out in front, knees bent underneath you, etc? And if sitting on the floor isn’t comfortable yet, can you sit on a cushion (or cushions) of a different height than your usual chair, changing the geometry of your sitting position slightly?

While you’re talking on the phone at work, can you roll the soles of your feet on a tennis ball, introducing different movements to the many joints and tissues in your foot?

All of these actions are movements, and they’re just as valuable to your health as hitting the gym.

Now, to be clear I’m not advocating that you ditch your exercise program. But I am suggesting that you see your exercise time as just one part of an entire day of movement opportunities.

In the next Mind Shift post, we’ll talk about a second reason for shifting our perspective from exercise to movement. In the meantime, happy moving!

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