Even if you exercise regularly, you could be living a couch-potato lifestyle
What kind of an athlete are you? Most people who participate in competitive amateur athletic events, such as running races, triathlons, century rides, or strength-training competitions spend at least an hour exercising most days of the week. But what you do during your non-training hours may also play a role in your overall health and fitness level.
Unless you are a professional athlete who gets paid to train all day long, you may suffer from a condition that has been casually dubbed the “sedentary athlete syndrome.” The condition has gained the attention of some researchers who have noticed that sedentary behaviour during non-training hours can impact factors such as body weight and performance.
What Is a Sedentary Athlete?
A sedentary athlete has been defined by some in the exercise community as a person who participates in regular exercise but spends the rest of the day sitting at a desk, watching television, texting, or relaxing. These sedentary activities may have the power to undo some of the benefits gained during exercise.
Today’s average athlete may train as much as one to two hours a day or more. Workouts may be shorter in length (less than one hour) and very intense (spin classes, HIIT training, CrossFit) or they may be longer, moderate sessions, such as a long-distance run or an endurance bike ride. Often, a weekly training schedule includes both shorter and longer workouts.
But outside of the time at the gym, these same athletes may lead a very sedentary lifestyle. In fact, the average recreational athlete today is likely to get less activity than the non-athletes of the past. How can this be? Consider that most of us today move far less in our day-to-day lives than our parents and grandparents did even though they probably never went to a gym.
If you exercise regularly yet have a desk job, commute by car, and look at a screen in your free time, it’s likely that, even with the gym time you carve out, you may be more sedentary than previous generations who never did formal exercise at all.
Impact of Sedentary Athlete Syndrome
Sedentary behaviour is associated with a wide range of negative health outcomes, including an increased risk for obesity, cardiometabolic disease, and all-cause mortality. Even though an athlete exercises regularly, the time that they spend in sedentary mode may have a significant impact on their health and performance.
The term “sedentary athlete syndrome” hasn’t been widely used in the research community, but that doesn’t mean that the topic has been ignored. Several studies have been conducted in the past 20 years investigating the impact of sedentary behaviour on people who participate in different levels of athletic activity.
For example, one small study published in the Journal of Sport Sciences examined the relationship between sedentary behaviour and body composition in 82 elite male athletes. Study authors chose to measure body fat percentage because increased adiposity affects health and performance even in athletes. 3
The study results indicated that athletes with higher amounts of sedentary behaviour had higher levels of total and trunk body fat, regardless of age and weekly training time. The researchers concluded that high levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity do not mitigate the associations between sedentary behaviour and body fat percentage in highly trained athletes.
Other studies have had similar findings in both men and women.1 One study concluded that it takes about 60 to 75 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each day to cancel out the cardiovascular risks of a sedentary lifestyle.
Tips to Avoid Sedentary Athlete Syndrome
If you participate in regular exercise, there’s no reason to change your fitness habit. But you can use these tips to stay more active during your non-exercise hours.
Increasing your daily non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) helps you to burn more calories and reduce your risk for diseases like diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular events, and all-cause mortality.
Move More During Work
If you work at a computer all day, invest in a stand-up work station, or simply get creative with boxes or books on a countertop to find a way to stand up while working. Stand during phone calls, and walk to your coworker to talk rather than emailing or messaging them.
Invite people to walk during meetings. Make more quick trips to the restroom. Get up every hour to do a few push-ups or jumping jacks. Investing in a fitness tracker can help by providing hourly activity alerts. Get creative and just get up more often.
Design an Active Commute
Bike or walk to work, park farther away, or walk to the next bus stop. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. These activities can add thousands of steps to your daily step count, help to increase your outdoor time, reduce stress, and keep your body active.
Make Social Time Active
Instead of going for drinks, dinner, and happy hour with friends, take a walk, play tennis, play frisbee, or go dancing. Be creative and catch up with friends while doing something active rather than just sitting.
If you’re planning a vacation, consider taking an active holiday. There are resorts and hotels all over the world that can help you to stay active by providing bicycles, gym access, and fitness classes. Or plan your own active vacation with hiking, canoeing, kayaking, or cycling.
Try a Sports Camp for Your Next Vacation
Do More Chores Manually
One great way to increase your non-exercise activity thermogenesis is to do your own housework and chores. Get a push mower, rake leaves, sweep your floors more often, shovel snow, or clean out closets or a garage.
Doing household chores can help you burn hundreds of calories each day. You can even turn housecleaning into a workout.
Make a commitment to give up your car a couple of days each week and commute, run errands, and visit friends on foot or bike. You can also mix public transit with self-propelled transit for longer trips.
Track Your Daily Activity
Many people who consider themselves athletic or regular exercisers burn far fewer calories than they believe, eat more calories than they require, and spend the majority of their days sitting. To get an idea of your actual 24-hour activity level and calorie burn, use an online calculator to get an estimate. You can also use data from your fitness tracker.
While there’s no need to obsess over the number every day, you can watch trends in your activity level and make changes to your routine if necessary. Small adjustments can have a big impact over the long term