Sedentary slump: the risks of an inactive lifestyle
25-35% of the U.S. population considers their lifestyle completely sedentary. Not only do they have inactive jobs, but they have no physical activity in their free time, at least outside of their day to day movement. It’s easy to get busy in the mental demands of our lives and responsibilities, and forget how important exercise really is. It’s not just for muscle growth, weight loss, or physical aesthetic. Keeping your body moving throughout the years creates a healthy environment for your metabolic processes, bone and organ health. Unfortunately, an inactive lifestyle will change more than just what you see in the mirror. It may make your chances of long-term health and survival that much more unlikely.
One of the first things to go when you abandon exercise and physical activity on a daily basis is your cardiovascular health. So much so that health experts have coined it the “sitting disease”. Long-term sedentary behavior puts you at risk of high diastolic blood pressure, or hypertension. This means that the pressure of the blood being pumped through your arteries is consistently too high, making it harder for your heart to do its job. Even for active individuals, just two weeks of time off can make running long distances much more challenging. Your heart adapts to the environment you create for it. The level of oxygen it’s able to deliver to your organs ebbs and flows with your level of activity. If sedentary becomes your new normal, you will have a much higher risk of heart disease, stroke, heart attack and death than the average population.
Inactivity also changes the way your body metabolizes fat. There are two kinds of fat storage: subcutaneous and visceral. Subcutaneous fat is just below the skin and can accumulate in a variety of places. Though it may give you little love handles or thicker thighs, it is biologically harmless. Visceral fat is the one you want to avoid. It collects in your midsection, around your organs, putting you at risk for all kinds of diseases. Studies show that inactivity leads to more visceral fat being stored, leaving individuals with a bigger and bigger waistline above all else.
One particular kind of fat can also build up in your arteries. Triglycerides take the excess energy from your diet and store it in the walls of your arteries. This accumulation leads to high cholesterol and the narrowing of those vital passages. Clearly, if the blood can’t get through, your at risk for a lot more than just weight gain.
Now you may think that as long as you are eating well and sticking to a certain calorie count, that you can still be relatively healthy without any exercise, but unfortunately that’s not true. Many of these processes still occur in individuals that are dieting. Exercise tells your body to send carbohydrates or glucose to the muscle tissue. Your pancreas pumps out insulin to get all the fats and sugars out of your blood, and into the muscle cells. But without daily activity, your body becomes resistant to that insulin, leaving your bloodstream chalk full of extra sugar. High blood sugar comes with a wide array of health risks, including diabetes and cancer. So even if you are in a caloric deficit and losing weight, your most likely losing muscle mass not fat. Your getting smaller, but not leaner.
Exercise can also be considered a kind of stimulus for our skeletal system. The activity puts a work load on our bones, keeping them strong and durable. Without that weight-bearing movement, your bones will naturally thin and lose density with age, leaving you more vulnerable to fractures. Muscle can act like a cushion around those bones as well. Without a decent amount of muscle mass, your bones are susceptible to higher impact forces around you. Because of the increasing rate of inactivity in young adults, the average onset age of osteoporosis keeps getting lower.
If inactivity hurts the bones, it’s an easy assumption that it hurts the joints. This is especially true when your sedentary lifestyle leads to excessive weight gain. When your skeleton has to support an overweight frame, it puts more pressure on the cartilage in your joints. A very common source of pain for people is the lower back. That’s because hours on end of sitting puts pressure on the disks in your spine, leading to degeneration. Long term wear can break the joint down completely, leaving you in need of a replacement or other surgical solutions in the future.
Active individuals also experience healthier sleep patterns. Sleep acts as our body’s reset button. Rest allows your body to restore nutrients, recover from muscle breakdown and put your mind at ease. Individuals with sedentary days report tossing and turning, and waking up throughout the night. There’s no better remedy for a deep sleep than a vigorous workout that depletes all your energy stores.
Researchers have referred to inactive lifestyles as “disuse syndrome”. It’s an umbrella term for all of these biological degenerations that can occur, including mental health. Individuals that are physically active generally lead happier, more positive lives, while those that are sedentary have shown higher risks of depression, anxiety and even low sex drive. Beyond your everyday emotions, long term inactivity can also slow down essential brain processes as you get older. Your concentration, memory, attention span and processing of daily tasks can all start breaking down.
150 minutes of exercise per week is the minimum recommendation from experts, but the more time you dedicate to this, the better. Trying something new can seem intimidating or overwhelming, but you won’t be a beginner forever. The physical demand may feel challenging at first, but it will amaze you how much improvement can be made in a short time. Our bodies are machines, ready to be put to work. No matter how much sweat and tears goes into that workout in the moment, your future self will thank you ten times over. With just a little extra effort, you could be an entirely new person, both physically and emotionally. The deterioration of our generation’s physical health is 100% preventable. Don’t shorten the gift of life because you’re too lazy to get to the gym. Decades from now, when a doctor tells you all the conditions you’re suffering from could’ve been avoided with a little exercise, will you wish you would’ve done things differently? Make yourself proud, work hard and get moving.
Take it from me
I had an active childhood, but after 4 or 5 years of sedentary habits in my adulthood, I was feeling the pain. I was only 22 years old and I was out of breath after a flight of stairs. I sat for 9 hours straight at work every morning, leaving my neck and back aching like crazy. I gained more weight in my stomach than I ever had before. And I found it more difficult to maintain a healthy, positive mindset when I felt so uncomfortable in my skin. Everything just felt like it was sliding downhill, when I was capable of so much more.
As soon as I overcame my fear of the gym and the discomfort of change, every aspect of my life turned around. Exercise stopped being this thing that I had to do. I wanted to do it because it made me feel good and made me better as a person all around.
Not only do I feel transformed in the present, but I know I’m setting myself up for a brighter future. Our bodies do so much for us, it’s only fair that we give them a balanced diet and healthy exercise in return so that they can perform at their best.