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The Health Effects of Physical Inactivity

With today’s busy schedules, people tend to end their day from school or work through lying in the bed or being a couch potato. People nowadays do not exercise and have a sedentary or inactive lifestyle. This type of lifestyle proposes a significant negative health effect because it involves very minimal to no exercise and a lot of sitting, lying down, and just not doing anything at all.

Many people around the world are spending more and more time doing sedentary activities. With the advent of technology, most people just sit for hours while using their computers, mobile phones, or other devices. Most jobs nowadays involve sedentary activities such as doing paperworks while sitting at a desk for several hours. With these, many are at risk for the negative health effects of physical inactivity. In order to give you a detailed explanation on the effects of having sedentary lifestyle, here are the following health effects of physical inactivity:

1. Your muscles shrink

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One of the most common effects of not exercising or having a sedentary lifestyle is muscle shrinkage, better known as muscle atrophy. This frequently. occurs when muscles waste away because of a lack of physical activity. In most cases, people experience muscle atrophy when a disease or injury makes it hard or impossible for them to move an arm or leg. Most people also experience the condition if they are bedridden or unable to move certain body parts due to a medical condition. A popular example in films are Astronauts who can experience muscle atrophy after a few days of weightlessness. This lack of mobility can result in muscle wasting. Without the regular muscle activation and movement, through time, your arm or leg begin to appear smaller but not shorter than the one you are able to move. The good thing about muscle wasting is that it can be reversed with proper diet, exercise, and physical therapy.

Most people with muscle atrophy have symptoms such as one of the arms or legs is noticeably smaller than the other, there is significant muscle weakness in one limb compared to other, and general physical inactivity of the body.

Even if physical inactivity and general sedentary lifestyle is the most common cause of muscle atrophy. There are also other causes for the condition including aging, alcohol-associated myopathy which is the condition wherein there is pain and weakness in muscles due to excessive drinking over long periods of time, burns, injuries such as a torn rotator cuff or broken bones, malnutrition, spinal cord or peripheral nerve injuries, stroke, and long-term corticosteroid therapy. Furthermore, there are specific medical conditions that can cause your muscles to waste away or can make you immobile which results in muscle atrophy. These illnesses include: (1) amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease which the condition that damages the nerve cells affecting the normal control on voluntary muscle movement; (2) dermatomyositis which causes muscle weakness and skin rash; (3) Guillain-Barré syndrome which is an autoimmune condition that results in nerve inflammation and muscle weakness; (4) multiple sclerosis, also an autoimmune condition in which the body’s protective covering layer of the nerves are destroyed; (5) muscular dystrophy which is a genetic disorder wherein muscle becomes weak; (6) neuropathy which is the term used to describe damage to a nerve or nerve group that leads to loss of sensation or function of muscles; (7) osteoarthritis which causes reduced motion in the joints and limited movement of muscles; (8) polio which is a viral disease affecting muscle tissue that can eventually lead to muscle paralysis; (9) rheumatoid arthritis which considered as a chronic inflammatory autoimmune condition that affects the joints and muscle movement; and many other genetic and inflammatory conditions.

Management of muscle atrophy usually depends on the diagnosis and severity of your muscle loss. However, the most common method of treating and managing muscle atrophy is exercise, combined with physical therapy, ultrasound therapy, surgery, and dietary changes. Other physicians also recommend water exercises that can significantly aid in returning muscle strength and mass faster. Hence, if ever you experience muscle shrinkage due to physical inactivity, it is important to talk to your physician or physical therapist because they can teach you the correct ways to exercise to regain your muscle function. They can also aid in moving your arms, legs, and other muscles if you already have trouble in moving them. Furthermore, ultrasound therapy can also help in dealing with your muscle atrophy. In the worst case scenario, however, when your tendons, ligaments, skin, or muscles are already too tight and prevent you from moving, surgery can then be recommended as a form of therapy. It can aid in correcting the deformity caused by the muscle atrophy.

2. You gain significant weight

If you are physically inactive or you live a sedentary lifestyle, you do not burn as many calories compared to those who are living a more active lifestyle. Moreover, because you have a sedentary lifestyle, it is much easier to overeat, especially if your favorite food choices are high-calorie foods. Studies show that people who live sedentary lifestyles not only burn fewer calories but also spend more time snacking out of boredom or as a means of distraction. As a result, you significantly start to gain much more weight. Moreover, individuals who live sedentary lifestyles may also struggle to lose that weight gain.

In addition to that, if you are one of those people who used to go to the gym and exercise or were following a strict training program but immediately shifted to a more sedentary lifestyle, you will quickly notice an increase in body fat. Studies show that people who used to train hard and suddenly stopped significantly observed a more steep increase in their body fat after just a few weeks. Controlling your caloric intake is one of the most effective ways in order to prevent weight gain especially if you have physical inactivity. With that, you will need to alter your diet to counteract your sedentary lifestyle. That means saying goodbye to dessert, the bread basket, and those extra high-calorie toppings. It is hard to give up these things so it is indeed so much better to exercise from time to time so that you can still eat the food you want in moderation without having to worry too much about gaining weight.

3. Your bone weakens

Most of us have seen the elderly in the family or neighbourhood suffering from debilitating bone fractures of the arm, leg or hip are secondary to a bone condition called osteoporosis. Older adults lose bone mass through natural ageing every decade. Mature skeletons cannot lay down new bone as effectively as in youth but resorption with disuse will still occur. But in what is an alarming recent trend, cases of such osteoporotic fractures are now being presented in significantly younger people, even those that are still in their early 30s. Most studies pinpoint this new trend due to a lack of physical activity and a sedentary lifestyle that has reduced the average age of osteoporosis. Hence, one of the more long-term effects of not working out has something to do with your bone health. You will not be able to see the effects immediately however if you are taking several months off of exercise, the effects can reach your bones within a year. Sedentary adults compound risks of thinning of ageing bones because there is no physical activity that serves as a loading stimulus. Furthermore, the loss of muscle mass with age exposes bones to higher impact forces and is accelerated by a sedentary lifestyle. It must be noted that as you age and over time you need to work harder to maintain your fitness. In the absence of weight bearing activity the bones are more susceptible to becoming brittle and you will be more at risk of osteoporosis.

With that, it must be remembered that exercises that put stress on the bones like weight bearing ones, aid in building their strength. Any physical activity that forces you to work against gravity is known as a weight bearing activity. These types of exercises significantly increase bone density and strength. They should be done depending on one’s capability and strength and by increasing intensity slowly through time. Examples of these types of exercises include weight lifting, aerobics, jogging, and the likes.

4. You have a higher cardiovascular disease risk

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Multiple studies have already established that a sedentary lifestyle is a recognized major risk factor for heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) disease. It has been associated with a broad range of cardiometabolic factors, including increased hemoglobin A1c, insulin resistance, elevated cholesterol levels, obesity, and metabolic syndrome. Sedentary behavior is also considered to be a risk factor for hypertension. Furthermore, studies have shown that people who are less active and less physically fit have an approximately 30% to 50% greater frequency or incidence of hypertension or high blood pressure compared to people who are physically active. Moreover, clinical trials have shown that physical activity can significantly reduce blood pressure in hypertensive and normotensive, or those having normal blood pressure, individuals, independent of changes in weight. Studies show that even without changes in body weight, those individuals who perform aerobic exercise on a weekly basis tend to have relative reductions in their resting blood pressure. In addition to that, these changes in their blood pressure are not dependent on the frequency or intensity of aerobic exercise or on the type of exercise they are performing. That is, the studies have demonstrated that all forms of exercise seem to be greatly effective in reducing blood pressure. However, it is good to highlight that aerobic exercise appears to have a slightly greater effect on blood pressure in hypertensive individuals than in individuals without hypertension. Thus, indeed there is a strong graded association between sedentary behavior and increased risk for cardiovascular disease and elevated blood pressure, independent of time spent in doing physical activity. With that, reducing daily sedentary time and increasing physical activity may lead to improvement in blood pressure and reduction in cardiovascular risk.

5. Your overall mental health and cognitive function declines

One of the best benefits of exercising is having a good feeling after doing the workout. Every fitness enthusiast is familiar about this elated post-workout feeling. Most studies explain that this is secondary to the ability of exercise to improve your mood and actually suppress chemicals in the brain that cause depression by releasing other chemicals that lessen it. With that, studies show that exercise reduces the levels of cortisol which are considered as stress hormones while increasing the levels of endorphins which are considered as happy hormones. Hence, if you do not exercise or you live a sedentary lifestyle, you will not only miss that post-workout high, but you are more likely to feel more anxious and depressed. Furthermore, you will feel more grumpy and self-conscious about your physical appearance as you lose strength and the pounds start adding up due to physical inactivity.

In addition to what has been stated above, mood is not the only thing that changes when you live a sedentary lifestyle. Several studies have shown that being physically inactive or halting exercise programs for very long periods can significantly affect your cognitive function. Studies showed that there is less blood flow to regions of the brain like the hippocampus, which is the area of the organ involved in memory. It must be noted that taking a couple days off probably will definitely result in complete memory loss. However, it is a proof that being physically inactive does affect the brain and its function and is a good motivation so that you can live a more healthy and physically active life.

1. Centers For Disease Prevention And Control. 2019. Lack of Physical Activity. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/physical-activity.htm. Retrieved on 12 August 2020.
2. Goldman, C. 2017. 10 Things That Happen to Your Body When You Stop Exercising. Retrieved from: https://www.cheatsheet.com/health-fitness/things-that-happen-to-your-body-when-you-stop-exercising.html/. Retrieved on 12 August 2020.
3. MedlinePlus. 2017. Health Risks of an Inactive Lifestyle. Retrieved from: https://medlineplus.gov/healthrisksofaninactivelifestyle.html. Retrieved on 12 August 2020.
4. Pietrangelo, Ann. Healthline. 2014. What Causes Muscle Wasting?. Retrieved from: https://www.healthline.com/health/muscle-atrophy. Retrieved on 12 August 2020.
5. Primamed, V. The Times of India. 2017. Sedentary Lifestyle Leading to Brittle Bones. Retrieved from: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/brandwire/healthcare-biotech/health/sedentary-lifestyle-leading-to-brittle-bones/articleshow/57313137.cms. Retrieved on 12 August 2020.
6. Sohn MW, Manheim LM, Chang RW, et al. 2014. Sedentary behavior and blood pressure control among osteoarthritis initiative participants. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 22(9):1234-1240. doi:10.1016/j.joca.2014.07.007

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