athletes · fitness · health

Sedentary athletes, not a contradiction in terms

I’ve got a teen athlete in my house and he’s kind of fascinating to observe. He works out hard, very hard, for hours a day: weight training, sports specific training, practices, and games. Rugby, football, basketball…this child hasn’t met a team sport he hasn’t liked. (Okay, not hockey, and for that I’m eternally grateful. I’m such a bad Canadian.)

I won’t talk about the food bills. That’s a post for another time. But most striking is his napping and flopping.

By and far, when not working out, he’s the most slothlike family member.

The sofa is his domain.

And it turns out he’s not alone. I’ve written about this before when exploring the question of why exercise doesn’t help as  much as it ought to with weight loss. Read Science, exercise, and weight loss: when our bodies scheme against us.

Here’s an excerpt:

 Heavy exercisers, it turns out, often move less the rest of the day and so burn not that many more calories than if they hadn’t exercised at all. When not exercising, they’re chronic sitters!

The study which sets out to prove this is cited in the Gretchen Reynolds’ book The First 20 Minutes  and she writes about it in her New York Times Phys Ed blog too. Following a group of young men assigned to a heavy exercise program, researchers were surprised at how little weight they lost. Yes, they ate more but more surprisingly, “They also were resolutely inactive in the hours outside of exercise, the motion sensors show. When they weren’t working out, they were, for the most part, sitting. “I think they were fatigued,” Mr. Rosenkilde says.”

Some people say we ought to “listen to our bodies.” But in my experience our bodies are sneaky experts at staying the same size. They need to be ready for feasts and famines and those women with extra body fat are more reproductively successful.

It’s another argument in favour of short, sharp, intense Crossfit style workouts since they don’t seem to have this effect. Once again, it’s High Intensity Interval Training (HIT) for the win. Thirty minutes, says Reynolds, is the sweet spot for exercise.

In Sedentary Athletes: Sitting & Weighting Nancy Clark writes, “Even competitive athletes who do double workouts often live a sedentary lifestyle. They generally do little but rest and recover during the non-exercise parts of their day.”  We’ve written here a few times about the dangers of sitting. See Sitting More Dangerous than Cycling, In Praise of Everyday Movement, and Stand Up, Get Out of that Chair, and Get Moving.

And it turns out that warning applies to athletes too.

More from Nancy Clark:

Hence, we not only need to find time to exercise, we also need to find ways to sit less—for example, bike to work, pace when talking on the phone, stand up when writing emails. (To elevate the height of your laptop computer, put it on top of a cardboard box that you put on top of your desk.) We could even reduce our carbon footprint by hanging laundry outside to dry on a clothesline. That would not only add on exercise but also save energy!

Because activity has been engineered out of our lives, non-exercisers and avid athletes alike can easily spend too much time doing too little activity. For example, we no longer use our muscles to open the garage door, lower the car window, wash laundry, or even walk down the hall to ask a colleague a question (email is easier). For many of us, the primary movement we get in a day is our purposeful workout/training session.

I try to be conscious of this. I have a standing desk for writing (where I am writing this, in fact), I walk for most of my errands in my neighbourhood, weather permitting I ride my bike, I use my clothesline, the washer and dryer are in the basement of a 3 story house, and the composter is at the far end of the yard.  My new goal is to try to do stretches and physio exercises while watching TV shows on DVD with the family. That and driving and meals are my main sitting times.

How about you? How many hours a day do you sit or flop on the sofa? Does it vary with how much you’ve exercised that day?

Luckily (?) I don’t have one of these!

9 thoughts on “Sedentary athletes, not a contradiction in terms

  1. Aside from making an effort to walk more to where i am going, I do burpees or push-ups etc. while I’m waiting for the water for my tea to boil or my toast to toast. I haven’t yet moved to a standing desk but I have taken heed of your advice to get up and move regularly ( at least every 30 minutes is what I aim for). Thanks for this reminder. Though I do lots of isolated activity, integrationism appeals to me. I’m not planning to renew my parking pass next year.

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  2. Yes, I like how many of the ‘moving more’ recommendations also match my environmental values: not driving to work, hanging clothes on the line, shopping locally, etc,

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  3. The harder you work out for long periods of time – as you actually must in weight training, just for instance, if you want to gain serious strength – the more difficult it can be to avoid “flopping” afterward – even if you do integrate interval training into your regimen. That said, the interval training I’ve added to my workouts has done wonders not only for my speed and cardiovascular health, but it has also caused me to lose a further inch off my waist in about two months, while maintaining the same weight (I hover between 195 and 201 lbs.). I also try to walk alot, but after exercising for a couple of hours most days – which includes some serious interval training – I admit, I don’t have alot left in the gas tank! And I can’t do burpees or pushups in my off-hours – I’m too sore and my weightlifting regimen calls for me to work out one area once a week, i.e. chest, back, core, shoulders, arms, legs (on legs day, I don’t do cardio). So it really does matter how you train and for what purpose. For me, with certain medical concerns, the best thing I can do is give equal time to weight lifting and cardio (including interval training) – about an hour for each, although the cardio serously reduces the gains which could be made in weightlifting otherwise. But since that’s what’s best for me, that’s what I do (plus go swimming with my daughter every Saturday, and try to walk alot).

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  4. I’m not sure how many hours. I do sit a fair bit when I get home from work, but with a chronic hip condition, I can’t sit comfortably for very long. So I end up interspersing my sitting with bouts of housework or pushups or stretching every 15 minutes or so.

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  5. Your teenager sounds like my partner; he definitely works out very hard but likes to lounge when he’s not…very binary. I’m more of a somewhat hyper fidgeter who can’t sit still for too long (I was a terrible child/student in that regard). But the good news is that we balance each other out…he gets me to sit my butt down and chill (and I need it) and I get him up and out to do stuff (if we were dogs, he’d be an English bulldog and I would be a border collie). I haven’t tried the standing desk thing yet, but I am curious. 🙂

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