When you have a million things on your plate and getting a sweat in is just one of them—it’s easy (and even normal) to check that run or Barry’s class off early in the morning and never think twice about it. But new research indicates that people who work out for 30 minutes a day and then proceed to stay stuck at their desks for 10 to 12 hours afterward may be what researchers have termed “active couch potatoes,” or people who consider themselves fit but actually face some major health risks.
The study, published in The Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports Medicine, looked at seven consecutive days of data from 3,702 46-year-olds in the Northern Finland Birth Cohort wearing hip accelerometers. Researchers sought to understand how certain exercise patterns affected participants’ cardiometabolic health, which considers the collective health risks associated with body mass index (BMI), blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, and history of cardiovascular disease.
At the conclusion of the study, researchers were able to divide the participants into four categories: active couch potatoes, sedentary light movers, sedentary exercisers, and movers. Out of everyone, the 1,173 “active couch potatoes” who exercised for a short period each day before settling in for 10 to 12 hours of work showed elevated blood sugar and cholesterol levels (two precursors for heart disease and stroke). Meanwhile, the “movers” who worked out for about an hour each day in addition to two hours of light movement later had the best cardiorespiratory indicators.
“[This is an] interestingly dope study because while the majority of studies in the past have looked at just activity tracking, this study looked at pure movement,” says Maillard Howell, fitness head of Reebok. “This study, in my opinion, makes a really good argument for NEAT and non-exercise movement.”
NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis, refers to the energy it takes to do everything else besides sleeping, eating, or exercising. “That additional non-exercise activity benefit was highest at about 80 to 90 mins per day. So think, hoofing it to the train in the morning, walking to the coffee cart mid-day, or taking stairs,” says Howell.
If you’re currently part of the “active couch potato” group, know that you’re not alone. “This is fairly common,” says Howell. “I’ve trained professionals over the years ranging from writers, administrative workers, and corp execs who, for the most part, spend the majority of their day seated after or before seeing me for their training session.” He adds that depending on your job, you may have minimal opportunities to get your blood flowing. For example, if you’re a secretary, a bank teller, or an Uber driver, it may be more difficult to find NEAT in your everyday life.
Howell’s recommendation? Do your best. “Up your NEAT by taking the stairs, going for a quick stroll after your lunch and dinner, or doing some light stretching at your desk,” he says. “These are all things I do myself daily to help boost the benefit of my actual 30-minute workout.” Even if it means doing a few push-ups on a bathroom break, know that you’re making huge strides toward taking care of yourself.