Non-exercise physical activity improves heart health (Or: It pays to dust the living room while watching television)
By Sarah Larson, ND, LAc
While there is no substitute for a regular exercise routine, a recent study from Swedish researchers indicates just getting up and moving around throughout the day rather than sitting can reduce the chance of having a first cardiovascular incident and improved longevity. First published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, online October 28, 2013, a resident population of Stockholm County, Sweden, participated in a study for an average of 12.5 years. Nearly 4300 people participated and were grouped into two cohorts: those who had high levels of physical activity throughout the day and those with low daily physical activity. Regular exercise was not considered a factor in this study.
Participants were given cardiovascular risk tests including; waist circumference, cholesterol testing such as; high density lipoprotein levels (“good” cholesterol) and triglyceride levels, measures of blood sugar, blood insulin levels, fibrinogen (a factor necessary for blood clotting) and the occurrence of metabolic syndrome. Each of these markers has been shown to be predictors of heart problems such as heart attack. In people who had high levels of non-exercise physical activity, each test was significantly better than in those who were more sedentary. Men had more significant changes in blood sugar, insulin and fibrinogen from the start of the study to the conclusion than women. One consideration for the difference between more activity versus less is the body’s improved ability to circulate blood with muscular contraction that occurs with movement; a prolonged sedentary position does not do the same.
There are some shortcomings with the experiment as it was conducted. It did not take into account diet, sleep and many other important factors such as smoking, medications taken or alcohol use. However, it does appear that although a regular exercise routine is important in reducing the chances of having a heart attack or other types of heart disease, getting up and moving around during the day rather than sitting also improves your heart health.
When seeing patients, I always ask about exercise based on the idea that regular aerobic exercise, a decrease in body fat and an increase in muscle are all very important for long-term health outcomes. I rarely ask how active people are on a daily basis but this study has raised enough good information for me to consider a regularly sedentary lifestyle to be a possible risk of heart disease, not just the lack of a regular exercise program. It may be in everyone’s best interest to walk during the lunch hour at work, take regular movement breaks (even if that means you climb a few set of stairs in a ten-minute span). Getting outdoors to work on the yard, doing housework or even just walking around Costco may improve your health outcome in the long run, even if you don’t run. Just get up and move.