Spontaneous Physical Activity
We can tend to place physical activity purely into the category of exercise and like many aspects of modern life, domesticate it into specific, corralled time slots. When we add this into sedentary tendencies to sit down all day, this all-or-nothing approach to movement can be jarring (and felt as such into areas like the lower back and knees) and does not move tissues and fluids around the body as designed.
One of the downsides to the rise of gym culture is that, having worked out a couple of times a week, people may think being sedentary the rest of the time is okay. The reality is that this sudden shift from 0–100 miles an hour can shock the body and cause the very stress we’re trying to avoid. We need to move regularly throughout the day – ideally a little every hour. This movement is often referred to as Spontaneous Physical Activity (SPA) or sometimes ‘incidental’ or exercise, as it’s simply about moving more in the context of your day – wherever you are, whenever you can.
Much of our body functions can be felt continuing as we sit – our heart pumps our blood and we can feel a pulse – but much relies on motor activity to keep it flowing. Our lymphatic system for instance, needs us to move for its immune and detoxification effects. Fluids can easily pool and stagnate when we are not continually moving them against the continually pulling down action of gravity. Long periods of not-moving can contribute to circulatory issues from this stagnation, from loss of vein integrity, such as oedema (fluid retention), cellulitis, varicose veins, haemorrhoids and diverticulitis.
How we evolved to move
We are built to move and our metabolism (the rate at which we use energy) rises to signals that we need energy as we raise physical activity. Conversely, if we don’t move around enough, energy usage can slow right down and we can be more disposed to fat storage than building muscle. Simply put, the more we move, the more efficient body processes become and related systems such as blood sugar and appetite are more easily regulated. This means sugar and other food cravings can be more easily managed.
The movement we need is not simply more; harder and faster. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have had a widely varied system of movement and activity mostly around necessary tasks; walking, running, hunting, gathering, building, mending, climbing etc and they would not have had comfortable furniture to lounge around on. Survival within that lifestyle required plenty of necessary movement and calorie-burning from finding food and water, social interaction, escaping from predators, building homes, making tools, washing clothes and carrying babies – all in much more intense situations of the elements and weather than we usually find ourselves in.
Hunter-gatherers existed until about 10,000 years ago. Their naturally active lifestyles meant they weighed an average of 14 kilos less than we do today, expended about 400–600 calories more every day, but also with fallow periods and imposed fasting. According to a report in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, the energy expenditure of a typical Westerner is about 38 per cent that of our primitive hunter-gatherer ancestors (International Journal of Sports Medicine,1998;19(5): 328–35).
Daniel Lieberman (Professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard) describes in his book “The Story of the Human Body” how our ancestors would have alternated high-activity days with less demanding days so they had adequate rest. However, their low-activity days would not have been the slumping and complete inactivity we equate with rest today, rather they were time to rebuild tissues and to reduce the likelihood of crippling injuries. This sets the pattern of exercise that we have evolved to be best suited to; a variety of activities performed intermittently and with different levels of intensity, with adequate rest in between to ensure complete bodily and muscle recovery between exertions (Amer J Med,2010;123(12):1082–86).
As we have food easily available, permanent and reliable shelter, no predators anymore and transport to move ourselves, our children and the things we need to carry, natural prompts to move and opportunity to do so are simply no longer there. This gives us the difficult task of motivating ourselves to get up and do things we simply don’t need to. The best forms of SPA are those that we can weave into our lives as ways that we live – carrying bags, walking as transport, not always going the easiest route or taking the lift – they all add up.
Stress also plays its part in reducing our spontaneous activity. Long-term or chronic stress can deplete levels of the mood and motivation neurotransmitter dopamine, which shuts of our basic imperative to move setting, leaving us at odds with intentions as we conserve our energy reserves. We may want to want to go for that walk or run, but find ourselves not quite doing it (J Exp Biol.,2011;214(2):206–229).
How to move
Get a pedometer and aim to clock up about 10,000 steps a day about 5 or 6 times a week. A systematic review of 32 empirical studies suggests that relatively healthy adults take between 7,000-13,000 steps a day (BMC Public Health,2015;5:174/ JAMA,2007;298(19):2296-304). Other research has shown that those meeting the 10,000 steps a day target are more frequently classified as ‘normal’ weight and those getting less than 5,000 a day are more frequently classified as obese (Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord.,Nov;25(11):1571-8). Every step counts, even walking to the kitchen to make a tea, but roughly speaking, 3,000 steps is about half an hour’s walking.
Studies show that owning a dog encourages sticking to an exercise plan, improves fitness and reduces excess weight (Obesity 2006;14(10):1762–70).
Taking the Stairs Research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that women who ran up and down the stairs at work for 2 minutes at a time, 5 times a day boosted their fitness over an 8-week period (British Journal of Sports Medicine 2005;39(9):590–93). Most of us are time-poor, but if you get up and move around every hour or so by going up and down a couple of flights of stairs, you’re keeping your metabolism more fired up than if you were sitting down for 4 hours straight until lunchtime.
Other Spontaneous Activities
‘Social Setting Exercise’ – that is, any activity that requires more than one person to perform – is extremely beneficial, not only for its cardiovascular effects but also for its ability to help you connect with other people, have fun and engage in some healthy competition (J Am Geriatr Soc.,2003;51(12):1685-92). We are pack animals and cohesion of the tribe is key to survival, so our brains reward these behaviours with a shot of that motivating neurotransmitter dopamine. This can help bring us out of our commonly over-stimulated mental states and burn off the stress hormones generated during a typical working week.
Engaging in Social Setting Exercise once or twice a week can help this activity be naturally incorporated into family and social gatherings (Can J Public Health,2007;98(2):S208–17). Having a relationship with others that involves physical activity and contact helps us feel closer and raises the feel-good chemicals beta-endorphins and the anti-stress hormone DHEA. Both of these have key roles in immune and nervous system regulation and reduction in chronic degenerative disease such as osteoporosis, heart disease and diabetes. Exercise is of course also preventative and helpful for such conditions (Compr Physiol.,2012 Apr;2(2):1143–1211).
Social Setting Exercise doesn’t just have to be formalised sports such as tennis or badminton but can also just be playing around, such as:
Any of these that can involve being outside, in nature, laughing with others and having fun are extremely nourishing on all mind-body levels; we can feel a great deal of lack and isolation without these factors in our lives.
Exercise to help encourage Spontaneous Physical Activity
Some simple movements can be woven into life; when waiting for a kettle to boil or taking a screen-break. These can be an opportunity to counter stagnation and support lymphatic flow, circulation and metabolism.
Move your arms
Moving in the upper body - around the chest, heart, shoulders, neck and arms – frees up tightness from stress that we can quickly hold in these areas and into the jaw and temples, contributing to tension headaches.
Move into your hips and lower back
After long periods of sitting, we can seize up into the lower back, particularly if we have been slumping. Continually coming back to mobility there can help prevent the lower back pain so common in sedentary cultures.
Use your legs
These motions replicate the walking motion and with arms above the head and the twist, really get circulation moving.
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