Sedentarism: The Processed Foods Of Movement

Yesterday I was on a call with a new client and I was asking her about her exercise. When the topic of cardio came up she said, “I don’t do cardio, I just walk and hike.” She thought that was a negative thing…that “cardio” meant things like running, biking, and rowing. Little did she know I was actually secretly jumping up and down on the inside!


Whenever I onboard a new client I have them track their steps for the first 2 weeks and nearly everyone is below 8,000 steps a day, and a majority are below 5,000 steps a day. When I see steps below 8,000 a day, one of the first things I assign to these clients is a daily morning and evening walk for about 20 minutes. I don’t tell them to run, bike, row, or anything else, I just tell them to walk, the more the better.

Sedentarism, being still for long periods of time, is the processed foods of movement. Just like the best thing you can do to improve your diet is to remove processed foods and replace them with whole foods, the best thing you can do from a movement point of view is remove sedentarism and replace it with more movement.

Modern technology has had many benefits that improved our quality of life. One of which has been easy access to food and shelter. We can obtain both without exerting ourselves at all. This is nice, but when you combine it with our ancestral drive to thrive while exerting as little energy as possible, we have an evolutionary mismatch of epic proportions.

(Lots of calories) + (minimal physical activity) = (chronic disease)

In today’s world, most of us with access to modern technology need to manually inject physical activity into our lives to simulate the movement that would have been required to survive no more than 100 years ago. This point is nicely illustrated in a recent study where researchers compared the movement of the Malawis, modern farmers in Africa with no access to modern technology, and people in the United States[1]. These pie charts pretty much sum up their findings

Not only are there major differences in the amount of sedentary time, moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) and “high light” activity were much greater in the Malawis.

Why is minimizing sedentary activity so important?

Because physical activity has been shown to improve your health in study after study!

Physical activity has been shown to reduce breast cancer by 75%, cardiovascular and heart disease by 49%, diabetes by 35%, and colorectal cancer by 22% [2]. Not to mention the effect it can have on weight loss[3], stress management [4], sleep benefits [5], and so much more[6]!

A recent study even found that just standing more was associated with a lower risk of all cause mortality[7]! That is right, just standing more can improve your health!

Standing is a great way to break up long periods of sitting, but what about the effects of more vigorous movement interspersed throughout the day?

In another study researchers compared the amount of fat burned by participants after a day of sitting for 8 hours straight or a day of sitting for 8 hours with five four second sprints on a rower at the end of each hour. The group that did the sprints did about 20 seconds of movement per hour for 8 hours, or 160 seconds of exercise over the course of 8 hours. They found that those that did the sprints burn more fat the next day after being fed a high fat shake than the sedentary group[8].

Clearly moving more is going to be beneficial, but do you just need to stand or do you need to be sprinting every hour?

While standing more is probably a good thing, it is probably not enough to get all the health benefits we are looking for. At the same time not everyone is going to have access to a rower that they can do sprints on every hour.

This is where walking comes in.

Why walking?

It is the easiest form of movement someone can do and has the lowest barrier to entry. You can incorporate walking into your day in various ways

  • Go for a walk and listen to a book or podcast
  • Walk with your family after family meals
  • Do in person meetings while walking
  • Walk the family dog
  • When you are talking on the phone, go for a walk
  • Make walking part of your commute. Park further away from your job and walk the rest of the way.
  • Take the stairs when you can
  • Go for a walk after every time you eat

To get started incorporating more movement into your days track how much you are currently waking right now for a week. Many people have activity trackers that track their steps. Even if you don’t have an activity tracker, every phone can track your steps as well.

Once you have data for an average week of steps you know where you stand. If you are averaging 8-10 thousand steps a day over the week then you are doing a great job!

If you are below 8 thousand steps you probably want to increase the amount of movement you are doing. Try to incorporate one or two of my suggestions above for a week and see how many steps you can get with one or two small changes. Keep doing that until you get to 8-10 thousand steps per day.

Our ancestors moved in order to survive. For most of us today we are able to move very little and not only survive, but thrive….up until the point at which we are moving too little. Once we cross that threshold of too little movement we start to see negative effects in our health. But movement doesn’t have to mean exercise, it just means movement. Walking is my favorite and probably the most ancestrally appropriate form of movement anyone can do. But if you want to do 4 seconds sprints on a rower every hour instead, go for it. The point is that we need to move more, our genes expect that we do and if you want to have any hope of battling the chronic diseases that plague most people today, movement is going to need to be part of that solution.

Helping people reduce evolutionary mismatches like not enough movement is at the core of what I work on with clients and try to help people with via my newsletter. To learn more about how you can reduce the amount of evolutionary mismatches present in our lives today you can signup for my newsletter below to get actionable information delivered to you on a weekly basis.

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BONUS: Need more motivation to incorporate more walking into your day. Check out this podcast by my friend Dr. Mike T Nelson where he goes over 7 benefits to walking.

  1. (n.d.). Physical activity and sedentary time in a rural adult population …. Retrieved October 20, 2020, from

  2. (n.d.). Physical activity in the prevention of the most frequent chronic …. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from

  3. (2015, April 17). Diet, exercise or diet with exercise: comparing the …. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from

  4. (2014, May 1). Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to …. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from

  5. (2018, July 11). Exercise can improve sleep quality: a systematic … – NCBI. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from

  6. (2006, March 14). Health benefits of physical activity: the …. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from

  7. (2020, October 12). The WHI OPACH Study – Oxford Academic Journals. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from

  8. (2020, October 15). (PDF) Hourly 4-s Sprints Prevent Impairment of Postprandial …. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from

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