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The Simplest, Most Effective Exercise

The Simplest, Most Effective Exercise

Don’t overlook the power of standing and walking.

You’ll learn: How human movement changed; physical and psychological upsides of walking; the ideal number of hours to sit and steps to take; six powerful and sneaky ways to get more steps.


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On Monday, we covered how improving your posture can improve your health and performance. That post included a statistic—almost a throwaway I didn’t include—that always floors me.

20,000. That’s the average number of daily steps our ancestors took. Today most Americans get fewer than 5,000 and our fitness bands congratulate us when we get 10,000.

But it’s not just the number of steps that’s changed. It’s also the nature of our steps.

How human movement changed

Humans evolved as hunters and gatherers. Our daily job in the past was to walk around while picking up or hunting food. Then we’d carry it all back to camp. Most of the loads were small, likely 10 to 20 pounds. But scientists in Spain say gatherers sometimes carry weights equal to half their total body weight.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that workers transitioned to desk work en masse. Even just a few decades before, most jobs required hard labor.

Today the Bureau of Labor and Statistics says 13 percent of modern jobs qualify as “heavy labor,” and even many of these jobs are far less active than they once were. For example, many farmers now sit in machines.

Now roughly three-quarters of modern jobs are sedentary, and we’re sitting more every year. From 2007 to 2016, the average American added another daily hour of sitting. Adults now sit for six to eight and a half hours while kids sit more than eight (removing recess hasn’t helped, either). That figure likely increased after the pandemic.

A typical day is to roll out of bed, sit while commuting, sit while working, sit while driving back home, sit while eating dinner, sit while watching Netflix, then go back to bed.

All this sitting is associated with what kills us and hurts our well-being. For example, a higher mortality rate, increased risk for heart disease, and neck, shoulder, and back pain.

Many of us go to gyms to offset our lost movement.

But if you’re sitting or laying down 23 hours straight and then blasting at the gym for 1 hour, you’re missing a world of easy wins that can improve your health and how you feel.

Starting is easy.

Stand more

The simplest thing you can do to improve your health and fitness is to stand more. You’ll still see a benefit even if you aren’t moving when you stand. It has more to do with how you move and feel than it does with burning calories.

Research shows that standing increases the mobility in your spine and strengthens other back-supporting muscles, like your abs and glutes. That can set you up to perform better in life and avoid pain when you work out.

Plus, you inevitably will fidget around as you stand. And this is good.

As you stand, shift into different positions. For example, shift your weight into your right or left hip, stand with your feet staggered or wide, etc.

Over time, these different positions can improve your movement.

Walk more

I wish we could make this flashier. But the least exciting exercise happens to be incredible for the human body. Here are just two ways walking works wonders.

Walk to fix back and knee pain

Remember from Monday’s post that 80 percent of Americans will suffer from back pain. Another ~20 percent will experience knee pain.

One meta-analysis discovered that walking significantly reduced back pain. Another showed that it was as helpful in soothing chronic low back pain as other unmedicated therapies.

A new study also found that walking helped reduce knee pain more than not walking. Walking on “bad knees” can be uncomfortable initially—but your joints adapt by building back better.

Compared to other forms of exercise, walking holds up. In one study, researchers split participants with chronic low back pain in half. One group walked while the other strength trained.

After six weeks, walking was equally successful in strengthening all the muscles that keep your spine in the correct position. Other research found that walking was a more effective painkiller than yoga over the long term.

It’s a smart option when you consider that back pain is one of the leading reasons for opioid prescriptions. And it’s a more permanent fix.

Pills only temporarily mute pain and often fail in the long run.

If we think of pain as a smoke alarm telling us something is wrong, taking a pill basically just turns off the alarm while the fire still burns. Walking starts to extinguish the flames because it gets to the root cause of the issue.

And, of course, pills come with side effects and can be habit-forming.

Walk for mental health

Walking can also help us deal with malaise. Consider one review of 20 years of research on walking. It concluded:

There has been more research on the negative (psychological) disease-based outcomes (such as depression and anxiety) than for the positive well-being outcomes (such as happiness or subjective well-being).

I’ve said before that I don’t think exercise is medicine so much as inactivity is poison. The more physically active you are, the more you can buffer poison.

The review findings back this up. It suggests that not walking enough tends to make people depressed and anxious, rather than walking makes people happier.

When you do walk, try to get the steps outside and not on a treadmill. That same review found:

The evidence base seems to indicate that across the mental health outcomes there are additional benefits from walking outdoors in natural environments compared to indoor, treadmill based walking.

How many hours to sit and steps to walk