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The One Big Reason You Should Walk, not Run, and Throw Out Your Chairs

February 11, 2013
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I came across an article at NBC news last week that really excited me.   I have always known that moving more rather than less is good for us, more or less.  I also know that it is fairly ingrained wisdom in the paleosphere that moving frequently at a slow pace is one of the best forms of exercise, and with good reason.

Walking is one of the best correlates with longevity, for example.   That’s pretty powerful.

It also makes a fair bit of sense that our ancestors kept moving fairly constantly.

But what exactly does walking do for us?   What is the reason walking works so well?

Turns out, according to Dr. James Levine, a man NBC calls an obesity expert, our metabolisms are analogous to fires that require stoking.   Even an hour or two of hardcore cardio cannot “undo the damage done by sitting all day,” he says.  The more we sit at rest, the more and more our metabolisms slow.  Evolutionarily, this just makes sense.  Our bodies burn fewer calories when at rest, and as they detect less and less of a need to burn more, they sink further and further into metabolic sluggishness.  This results not just in decreased metabolic rates, but also in lethargy.   This is tied to why most people who use standing desks report increased alertness throughout the day.  Their bodies have not shut off the way they might otherwise.

Click here to watch Natalie Morales and Dr. Levine’s Google+ Hangout about the emerging health risk 

“A few years ago, I would have actually said to you, you know, the person who’s doing that session at the gym once a day is doing everything they need to do.” says Levine.  “But the data that are now coming up suggests that’s not the case.” “Being sedentary for nine hours a day at the office is bad for your health whether you go home and watch television afterwards or hit the gym. It is bad whether you are morbidly obese or marathon-runner thin. It appears that what is critical and maybe even more important than going to the gym, is breaking up that sitting time.”

Levine conducted experiments on the matter in 1999.   From what I can gather from the NBC article, Levine tracked energy output and metabolism with an EKG which monitored movement and exertion.   The results demonstrate how powerful it is to be constant motion, as opposed to trying to squeeze in all of your “calorie burn” at one point during the day.

“People who are lean, even who don’t go to the gym, move about two and a quarter hours a day more than people with obesity, “ Levine learned. This seems to indicate that the strongest indicator of leanness is constant movement, not how often you go to the gym.   I have been trying to think of some hidden variables that may be clouding the accuracy of this correlation / causation, but I cannot really think of any.  Perhaps it is that lean people feel more able to get up and move because their bodies are less heavy, or perhaps they feel more confident about moving, or just enjoy moving more because it feels better in a lean than in an obese body.  These are all possible reasons the data might be off, but I find the statistics still as thought-provoking and compelling as before.   The scientific data is compelling, too:

The body’s metabolic engines go to sleep, says Levine.  In doing so, “the muscles stop moving all together and the heart slows. Then, the body’s calorie-burning rate plummets to about one calorie per minute — a third of what it would be if you were walking.  Insulin effectiveness drops and the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes rises.  Fat and cholesterol levels rise too.”

This idea also plays out in fidgeting.  We’ve known for a while now that people who fidget are leaner than those who don’t.  The impulse to fidget may incite people to get up and move, or it’s also possible that the fidgeting itself is a signal of a higher running metabolism. In my person experience, the more I walk, the more I fidget.  It seems to me as though my body tries to maintain being “amped” up the more and more “amping” (with gentle movement) I do.   These days, I can hardly stand sitting down.  It just feels wrong.  

If I do sit down, I make sure I get up once and hour and get to move around somehow.  I often go to three hour long seminars, and I can feel my body slowing down more and more the whole time.  So the “get up and go to the bathroom” solution works.  It’s also okay to rest like this from time to time, so long as I know I can get moving another time.  I have become an addict to walking to the university.   I used to bike, which was more time efficient, but I’ve just got the need to kick my legs for longer and longer all of the time now.   When I cannot do these things, I make sure I stand.

And to be clear: I do not do any of this because I am making myself do it.  It is just what feels natural now that I’ve integrated more and more gentle movement into my life.

So my personal experience lines up with Levine’s research.  My hunger drives are more in tune, my circadian rhythm just feels a bit better, and my energy is far more stable the more I walk.   My quads are bigger, my waist slimmer.  I exercise in sprint form from time to time, and when I feel like it, and I absolutely advocate that you do the same if it feels good for you.  But it’s not the focus of my physical fitness anymore.

But what is your experience?  Are you a stander?  A walker?  A stairs-taker?  What does it do for you?

 

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Managing director of Paleo for Women and author of Sexy by Nature.

19 Comments

  1. At the moment I don’t have a cool standing or walking desk, but I do at least use an exercise ball as a chair. I think that helps somewhat. I think I’ll try running downstairs to the treadmill for some quick walk breaks (during the cold weather), and zoom around the block during the warmer weather. I adore walking long distances. Though I do wish it didn’t take quite so long :-D

  2. Wonderful post! I tell people all the time that you don’t have to be a gym rat; you just have to move. I will be sharing this with everyone I can!

  3. I crave walking. I don’t have a standing desk either, so I’ve taken to eating my lunch standing at the counter. I figure every little bit helps.

  4. Hi there, I’m really enjoying your blog. I have standing desks at home and work and I love them – I definitely think better, and get lethargic if I have a day full of meetings sitting down now. The more I discover about constant movement, not only in writing such as yours, but also from my personal experiments wth standing, walking to and from work, and regular breaks and such, the more convinced I am of the validity of the hypotesis that it is an essential part of human nature to move. Now if I sit too long not only am I tired and less productive, my body protests greatly with aches and cracking joints! I’m listening to it and giving it what it wants – long walks not long sits.

    • Clare, did you purchase your own standing desk for home? What do you use?

      • Hi Laura. My home desk is a Ninja Standing Desk which I bought off their Kickstarter. It’s portable and packs down into a laptop-sized bag, and hangs off the back of a door or a wall using invisible hooks. I’m not paid by them in any fashion and I will say it is one of the best pieces of “furniture” I have ever bought.
        http://www.ninjastandingdesk.com

        • Thanks, Clare. It’s good to see different options.

  5. I started standing at home about a year ago. My waist and upper thighs are thicker, from stronger muscles, and my hips are mostly happier. (They complain now when I sit for very long.) I also find it much easier to “get up and move around periodically” when I’m already standing. It’s less effort to get up.

    At first I used my laptop on a box on top of my bureau, then switched to a shelf, then switched to my kitchen counter, because my kitchen has the best light. I just have to make sure the counter is clean and dry. Anything around waist height seems to work for me.

  6. I have been using a standing desk at my office job for seven months now. While, I can’t say that I’ve lost weight, I have maintained my weight, and my back feels better, and my posture is better. At first, I received many stares and questions about my standing-desk (I was new), but now several women are planning a standing-desk of their own! My boss even ordered my a special anti-fatigue mat for my feet (I stand on it in my socks, highly recommended). I am now implementing some standing-desk exercises, like marching in place, little side and rear kicks, and calf raises.

  7. This is just a side note, but it’s something that really struck me – the photo at the beginning of this post, of two people walking. Judging by hip configuration, it seems to be a male on the left and a female on the right. And the woman is TALLER than the man. By a lot.

    You know, it’s shocking to realize that women are ALWAYS portrayed as smaller than men. ALWAYS. That’s got to have a psychological effect! Sure, *most* males are larger than *most* females (within a given race), but not all. Not always, all the time.

    It’s kind of cool to see that photo. I’m glad you chose it.

    • Yeah! Thank you. This is something I’ve written indignantly about before. Ideal women are small, and women often fantasize about larger men, being enveloped, taken care of, hugged, etc. What about the poor men who need to be enveloped, too? We’ve got a long way to go, I think.

      • I’m a shade over 5’11”. When I first started dating my shorter boyfriend and I would notice and point out all the couples where the woman was taller, and our non-stereotypical heights were something we had to get used to and get over. Now with my shorter husband we don’t even notice! Except when I’m wearing tall shoes and he’s barefoot :-D

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  9. My Dear Wife and I walk 2 hours every day, four days a week, and I stand/walk/pace at my job for 7+ hours the other three days. I’ve lost 80 lbs through primal eating and this energy-burning cycle described above.

    Coincidence? I think not. My DW and I are more creative and active mentally since keeping this schedule as well!

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  12. Hi Stephanie! I’d love to connect as I feel we are some of the only women out there tailoring Paleo to specifically hormonal outcomes. I find the culture to be oppressively male dominated, and want to band us ladies together. Shoot me an email any time. I’d love to have you on my radio show some time – Fearless Medicine.

    Warmly,
    Kelly Brogan MD

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  14. I prefer walking but often will increase incline, or rotate between different inclines. It helps with my thighs and quads and butt muscles. Still walking, but it helps build muscle while it builds endurance. Then I strength train so to build muscle everywhere else. I am for the time being jobless, but am trying to look for retail or sales positions where I am not sitting all day or standing in one spot; I prefer sticking merchandise over cashiering for exactly that purpose—you are constantly moving, carrying, lifting, pushing, pulling. Not at the levels our ancestors did, but still far better than a desk job.

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