The human species has a few key advantages over the rest of the animal kingdom, and one of those advantages is our capacity for motion. 10,000 years ago, we were perpetual motion machines. It is estimated that we spent in excess of 3,000 minutes a week moving, and early hunter/gatherers are believed to have walked upwards of 8 miles a day.
That ability to roam meant more opportunities to find food, so our bodies adapted to become incredibly efficient with how we use energy.
Today, our refrigerator is not 8 miles away, and if we move 300 minutes a week we are considered extremely active. To put that into perspective, experts recommend that we move at least 150 minutes a week to prevent a steady decline in our health, but the average American gets 120 minutes or less.
The Habits of Motion
My approach to physical activity takes a much broader outlook than exercise-focused plans do. It’s based on creating habits of active living. Our Stone Age ancestors didn’t have dedicated exercise time. Instead, they were active throughout each day.
We can do the same with our days, even if we aren’t trekking across a wilderness and are instead working in an office. At the center of my plan is getting you to move your body like you did when you were a kid, where you couldn’t help but move and bounce throughout your day. Then we look at opportunities to build a walking program, and after that we gradually introduce strength-training and more scheduled, structured exercises because those are still important.
The NEAT System
NEAT stands for “non-exercise activity thermogenesis,” which is all of the movements your body makes outside of planned exercise. Walking up the stairs with your laundry is NEAT. Bouncing your knee to the rhythm of music while you work is NEAT. Using a standing desk for part of your day is NEAT.
These small moments may seem like they don’t burn a lot of energy, but over the course of a day, a week, a month, and a year, those calories add up. And, if you are early in your journey and are not prepared for more demanding exercises, these small choices are a big step toward becoming more active. Turn to page 362 in Dr. A’s Habits of Health to learn more about NEAT.
Your Walking Program
Our goal is to eventually get you to walk 10,000 steps a day. That’s about 5 miles in total and gets us pretty close to what our ancestors covered in a day. I say eventually because you can start wherever is most comfortable for you, even if that’s 1,000 steps or less. The most important factor here is that you are moving more today than you were yesterday, even if those are small and gradual changes.
You can add several steps to your routine by using NEAT. Simple adjustments like skipping the elevator in favor of the stairs, parking farther from the door when you are out and about, and getting up from your desk to take a brief stroll all help add steps. Then, you can add a brief daily walk, around the block or through a local park. If you turn to page 384 in Dr. A’s Habits of Health, I prepared a quick-start guide to make that easier.
Structured Exercise (or EAT)
If you schedule time for a walk each day, you are technically beginning your journey into EAT, which is “exercise activity thermogenesis.” You dedicate a block of your time to fitness and fill that block with motion.
I always encourage clients to start with walking because it’s accessible and low-stress. If motion isn’t a big part of your life yet, jumping into an intense workout can be disheartening, but it can also be dangerous. Suddenly attempting to be ultra-active can strain your body and lead to injuries or complications, so walking is a comfortable place to start. If you are ready to begin an EAT program, page 389 has more information, but don’t forget to talk to your health care provider about your plans.
Your Next Goal
What’s next for you? Based on what you just learned, what small bit of motion can you start to add to your routine that would move you closer to optimal wellbeing?