The Inactivity Pandemic: What to Do About It

A woman who is an HR manager complained that working from home has made her more physically inactive than ever. This seems to be a common complaint.

Because of the risk of social isolation, she encouraged her team to use the chat application to check in with teammates more often. But what began as an effort to make people feel more connected, morphed into a sense that it is not okay to leave your computer except to go to the bathroom during the workday.

She sits in front of her computer from 8 AM to 5 PM with only a brief break for lunch. In the past, she would typically take a break for 10 or 15 minutes to go for a walk around the office campus or grab a cup of coffee. And there were other opportunities to get some exercise during the day. Just going to get some water could be a break.

It didn’t feel as if being gone for a few minutes was an interruption to the workflow because, if she was gone for a few minutes, when she returned people would see her come back and they could ask the question that was on their mind while she was gone.

Now she feels she has to be there to instantly respond to any chat message.

It is a common problem.

The Effects of Inactivity

This matters because there’s solid evidence that being physically in active is associated with poorer health across a number of dimensions. An article in Nature summarizes this literature.

Sustained physical inactivity and sedentary behavior are typically associated with poor physical and mental health and increased disease-specific and all-cause mortality risk. Even brief periods of exposure to these behaviors can be deleterious; for example, a 2-week reduction in daily steps from ~10,000 to ~1,500 steps lead to impaired insulin sensitivity and lipid metabolism, increased visceral fat and decreased fat-free mass and cardiovascular fitness in healthy adults.

Pinto, A.J., Dunstan, D.W., Owen, N. et al. Combating physical inactivity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nat Rev Rheumatol (2020).

Inactivity Makes Us Resistant to Exercise’s Benefits

Many of us are well aware of the fact that we feel sicker when don’t get any exercise. Perhaps we go out for a walk most evenings, or maybe even a run. Does that counteract this increase in inactivity during the day? Perhaps to some extent, however a recent study suggests that sustained inactivity may make us less responsive to the healthful effects of exercise. An article in the New York Times  summarized the effects of inactivity and its resistance to a single bout of exercise by referring to a study of young adults who sat immobile for a day and then went for a run…

In studies conducted at the University of Texas at Austin in recent years, healthy young people who sat all day for the sake of science showed higher-than-normal levels of triglycerides in their blood the next day after a fatty meal…Even when the young people interrupted another full day of sitting with a one-hour run, they continued to experience difficulties with fat metabolism the next day. The researchers speculated that the long hours of sitting might have changed the volunteers’ physiologies in ways that rendered them “resistant” to the expected, beneficial metabolic effects of physical activity.

The 4-Second Workout: Intense bursts of exercise throughout the day may have surprising metabolic benefits. Gretchen Reynolds. New York Times. April 29, 2020.

The Solution is Frequent Short Periods of Activity

The same group of University of Texas researchers who published the study on fat metabolism and inactivity, designed a program of short, intense burst of activity throughout the day.

Once an hour, for about 2 minutes, the volunteers sat on a special exercise bicycle, one that allowed them to quickly reach maximum exertion. Although the total amount of time exercising in this group (16 minutes a day) was less than in the group that went for a run after a day of inactivity, the health effects were much greater in the group that got short intense bursts of activity throughout the day.

What could you do to mimic this?

  • Stair Climbing – If there is a staircase with at least 15 steps in your building you can do this quick routine in about four minutes. Walk up and down the stairs twice to warm up. Then walk up the stairs very quickly (or run if you feel up to it) and walk down slowly, landing mostly on your heels two more times. Finally walk up and down the stairs once slowly to cool down.
  • Exercise Machines – Setup an exercise machine near your workspace that you can use easily for just five minutes at a time. A rowing machine, an elliptical trainer, a running machine, or a stationary bicycle are all good. Warm up for one minute. Exercise hard for two minutes. Warm down for one minute.
  • Give yourself a reward for every time you take a break during the day. The key is going to be getting yourself to step away from work.

You will notice that you feel better within a couple of days. And you will probably even be more effective and efficient at work.