Halting your normally active lifestyle for two weeks might not sound like a big deal. But a new study shows it’s enough time to produce real changes in your body, and they can increase your risk of heart disease and Type-2 diabetes — even if you’re a young, healthy guy.
Researchers from the University of Liverpool recruited 28 men and women in their mid-twenties. None were gym rats, but all were regularly physically active, averaging 10,000 steps a day. For 14 straight days, participants slashed their daily step counts down to 1,500, while not altering their diet at all. After two weeks, the researchers took myriad body and fitness measurements and compared them to the same tests done prior to the trial.
While some physiological changes were anticipated, “We didn’t expect to see changes in so many of the measurements — including body composition, fat around the liver, and cardiorespiratory fitness,” says study author Kelly Bowden Davies. “These were small but significant changes that we would expect to be detrimental to health if continued long-term.”
It makes sense that if you hit the couch or beach chair for two weeks, you’ll lose some muscle mass, gain a little body fat, and be sucking more wind than usual when you do end up exercising. But what surprised Bowden Davies the most was the disproportionate amount of fat gain in the exercisers’ midsections compared to the rest of their bodies. “The most concerning change was their propensity to accumulate fat centrally and near the liver,” she says. Those factors, along with elevated triglycerides, are two major risk factors for diabetes, she adds.
The good news is these ill effects can most likely be reversed by resuming regular physical activity. The second part of this study, which is currently underway, will analyze data from the participants taken 14 days after the first part ended. This will tell us how much of the damage can be undone after two weeks back on a 10,000-steps-a-day program.
Bowden Davies views her study as a model of what today’s sedentary world is doing to our bodies. “We work desk jobs as opposed to doing manual labor; we drive or take public transportation everywhere versus walking,” she says. “We’ve shown the effects of what may be happening within the body over a lifetime of inactivity.”
Her study also highlights the vital importance of physical activity outside of structured exercise. “Exercise is planned out and takes up time, whereas physical activity is something we do every day,” Bowden Davies says. “And it’s proven to be beneficial to health, independent of exercise.” The study subjects were not people who exercised regularly, as in going to the gym or playing sports, she says; they moved around a lot as part of their normal routines. “Therefore, the most important take-home message is that any amount of physical activity is good for you — and you need to do it every day.”
Bowden Davies suggests breaking up periods of sitting throughout your workday by going for walks — not earth-shattering advice, but worth reiterating because, let’s face it, we don’t regularly do it. That’s especially true as we get older. “As people age, they tend to become less and less active,” Bowden Davies says. “Don’t let bad habits when you’re young creep up on you and really affect your activity later.”