Editor's Note: This is part three of our four-part "Be Well and Vital" series with Micah Howard, MD. Dr. Howard practices family medicine in Decatur, Alabama.
Picture the term "exercise," and chances are that some typical images come to mind: a runner pounding the track or the sidewalk, a lifter at the gym counting reps. But there's a related, if lesser-known, type of exercise that can be just as significant for our health, according to Micah Howard, MD.
Think of them as "micro-movements," the dozens of tasks our body performs each day without a second thought: standing, bending, lifting, stretching. "It's the times when you're moving your body but not for exercise," Howard says. "And by the end of the day all those small tasks can consume more energy than a 30-minute exercise routine. If you can start being consistent with a small level of movement, you will see benefits without the stresses of the high-end intensity workouts we traditionally think of as exercise."
One of the most important aspects of these casual micro-movements is the simple battle against gravity. "Our fight against gravity is one of the major factors that keep our body moving the way it's supposed to move," Howard says. "That's why astronauts who come back from space have lost muscle mass. Whenever you don't have that pressure pulling you downward, many of these systems that keep our bodies healthy and protected start to fray at the ends."
Howard cites a study by NASA scientist Joan Vernikos, from her book Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, in which she finds that today many of us have "active-sedentary lifestyles": exercise in the morning, sitting at a desk all day, maybe an evening walk, then sitting on the couch until bedtime.
For what comes in between, Vernikos coins the acronym "non-exercise activity thermogenesis," or NEAT.
"You might have met your required minutes of healthy exercise," Howard says. "But when you look at the whole scope of your week, the comparable micro-movement is lacking." That balance can be evened out by purposely taking time for brief motions when you'd otherwise be stationary: squatting, standing, raising your arms into the air, crossing and uncrossing your legs, and so on.
Besides contributing to physical fitness, NEAT movements, like regular exercise, contribute to mental health, such as alertness, memory, and problem-solving skills.
One landmark study that shows the impact of movement on academic abilities took place at Naperville Central High School, west of Chicago, where movement is integrated seamlessly with student's studies. Not surprisingly, the first class of the day is physical education. But focused movement isn't limited to the gym. Balls and bikes are built into the classroom. 30 minutes on the treadmill, the data found, leads to a 10 percent increase in problem-solving ability.
More impressively, reading scores improved by a factor of 10 and math scores by a factor of 20. One of the study's directors, Dr. Charles Hillman of the University of Illinois says "It's good for attention; it's good for how fast individuals process information; and how they perform on cognitive tasks."
Naperville recently gained headlines on an international level where some commentators touted it as a "super school." U.S. schools generally rank poorly in science and math when compared to their counterparts around the world (half of Asian students, for example, rank in the top tier, compared to only seven percent of Americans).
But students at Naperville took a quantum leap in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Naperville eighth graders who took the test scored number one in the world, finishing just ahead of formerly internationally leading Singapore. And on the math section, they ranked number six in the world.
The research might be new, but the principles are ancient. "How many times a day does a doctor hear a patient say the word 'fatigue?'" Howard says. "But the book Art of the Samurai tells us 'Energy comes from expending energy.' The more you use, the more you have. Energy is the only resource like that.
"Find opportunities to move and you'll be surprised at how quickly you become aware of clutter that limits your ability to do all those things. I invite people just to get up and move and see what your body does.
"If there were a pill that made you both smarter and less depressed, wouldn't you take it every day? This approach doesn't take much time, and it gives so much in return."