You have the best of intentions. After years of sedentary living, you now realize that exercise is really an essential part of healthy living. Besides that, your wife has been on your case to start getting in shape and reducing the size of your continually growing stomach. And every single Motzei Shabbos, you reaffirm that this is the week. You have already mapped out a course for a 35 minute walk daily and you even purchased a book about muscle building exercises for beginners. You wake up Sunday morning all ready to go. But on Sunday your Shul has a later minyan, you don’t work at your job Sundays and there is a family gathering in the early afternoon. Okay, but Monday is the day you are really going to start, until there is overtime at work, your son has a Gemara test on Tuesday and need some help preparing and you have to drop in to a Bar Mitzvah later that night. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday don’t fare much better and now that Shabbos is early, you are just happy to make it home in time to shower, put on your Shabbos clothes and get to Shul. But Sunday will come again, and again, and again. This was exactly Zevi’s situation week after week after week. It wasn’t just his wife that was on his case, but his doctor had implored him to start getting active in order to counter his newly present high blood pressure and his growing girth.
Zevi works, learns, is a good father that gives his kids attention, and is up early every day. He is not a time-waster. So he is one of those rare breeds who really doesn’t have much time to exercise. As a matter of fact, after going through his daily schedule, I was shocked that I really couldn’t find significant time for him to exercise. It is extremely rare that I can’t pinpoint times to set aside for formal exercise. So when plan A continually fails, it is time for plan B. And the emphasis now changes to NEAT or Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis.
The dangers of sitting too much
NEAT encompasses the calories burned while living life—walking to work, fidgeting, typing, folding clothes, washing dishes, running errands and so on; only sleeping, eating and formal exercise are not included. Research suggests that prolonged sitting can be as bad for health as smoking (Owen et al. 2010). Sitting “deactivates” the brain and lowers metabolism. Limited physical activity, low levels of mental stimulation and the absence of socialization (too much time on screens and mobile devices) have a detrimental effect on the human brain over time (Nussbaum 2006). Experts have concluded that brain health should be a priority given the threat of dementia, data indicate that most people are more reactive than proactive with their health and lifestyle (Nussbaum 2011). The good news is that movement can help, and it doesn’t have to be a marathon.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, chronic diseases are the number-one threat to public health, far surpassing infectious diseases. Eighty-six percent of our healthcare costs go toward chronic diseases (CDC 2017), and prolonged sitting is a significant contributor. When people get up and move, they’re likely to see big benefits:
- 21%–25% reduction in risk for certain cancers
- 20%–27% reduction in risk for stroke
- 27% reduction in risk for diabetes
While consistent exercise and a healthy diet can help to counteract the effects of sitting too much, when that becomes difficult or inconsistent, fitting in more activity within what we are doing daily becomes the next best option.
Also good for your brain
The brain also benefits from movement. Simple activities can boost NEAT while building and strengthening the brain. Dr. John Medina refers to physical activity as “cognitive candy.” The two primary foods for the brain are oxygen and glucose; oxygen reacts with glucose to produce energy for cell function. By moving we increase the flow of oxygenated blood and glucose to the brain. Proper glucose levels are associated with stronger memory and cognitive function. Brain booster activities increase blood flow to the brain, feeding it with glucose and oxygen.
When a person sits for longer than 10 minutes, the brain downshifts, and it becomes more difficult to pay attention (Jensen 2000). Sitting in Yeshiva, office settings and school environments typically require doing a great deal of work in a seated position, and yet the brain is least productive when sitting (Eckmann 2013).
Looking for solutions
Now that we know all of the wonderful benefits of regular activities to both the body and the brain, the challenge is how to execute the plan. Zevi and I sat together and went through his weekday schedule, Shabbos schedule and Sunday schedule. Where could he fit in activity and what should that activity be?
First, we talked about some standard behaviors that would help. We decided up that he would park his car a block away from his house and his workplace to get more steps in. He also said that he had enough time to walk to Shul and back for Shachris each morning adding another 7 minutes in each direction. When he got to the office building where he works, he began using the stairs up to his 4th floor office instead of the elevator. But then we looked into things he could do while at his desk. I suggested that each day he take 6 or 7 from the following list and do them every couple of hours.
- Walk in place for a minute with feet close to the ground or with high knees.
- Walk with your feet while seated in your chair.
- Stretch the chest by clasping your hands behind your back and looking up. Inhale while stretching, and exhale on the release.
- Shift your weight from side to side by swaying the hips.
- Do jumping jacks, squats, lunges and crunches during your breaks
- Do pushups and triceps dips at a counter, desk or wall; vary the hand width.
- Wiggle or tap the toes and fingers while working at your computer or sitting at a desk.
- Stand up and sit down at least every 10–20 minutes (every 5–10 minutes if possible); this boosts metabolism and strengthen the glutes and quads.
- Stand up and roll the shoulders up and back, one at a time and together.
- Take breaks from typing at the keyboard and make circles with both wrists. Open and close your fingers.
- While sitting in a meeting with your legs beneath your desk, subtly lift one leg at a time. Do this several times; then, as you lift, point your toes to the ground and, as you lower, point the toes up.
While putting activity into our days is very valuable and useful, it doesn’t completely replace the full benefits of moderate intensity or high intensity exercise. The truth is that most of us who are “too busy to exercise” usually either haven’t examined our daily routine close enough or our perception of time is off. When my clients tell me that they didn’t have any problem doing their daily 35 minute walks but they had no time for 15 pushups, you know that their perception of time is warped. After I have them do 15 pushups and show them on my stop watch that it took 52 seconds, they understand. Doing 6 or 7 minutes of muscle building exercise 3 or 4 days a week is so beneficial and everyone has 7 minutes out of the 1,440 minutes we have every day.
Creatively working activity into your busy day is essential in keeping your health in order and keeping it NEAT (Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis) will “add hours to your day, days to your year, and years to your life.”
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.