“Active Couch Potato” Revisited

Lack of energy and fatigue are common complaints presenting in physician offices. Population prevalence estimates for fatigue range between twenty and forty percent. Subjectively perceived energy levels, fatigue and feelings of vitality can impact quality of life, productivity, physical and mental wellbeing, and medical care costs.

Short and long term interventional exercise studies have found improvement in both fatigue and low energy symptoms in subjects with chronic fatigue and exercise is often recommended for fatigue complaints. Although the health benefits of regular exercise are widely proclaimed, recent research has demonstrated that non-exercise activity and sedentary behavior are health risk factors distinct from exercise. (Health Updates: March, 2011, “Are you an ‘Active Couch Potato’ ?” and April, 2012, “Activity, Mortality and Quality of Life”)

A study published in the January, 2014, issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise investigated the role of activity and sedentary behavior on subjective feelings of energy level and fatigue in seventy-three healthy adult women between the ages of 20 and 55 years. The subjects wore an electronic activity monitor for seven days and simultaneously maintained a daily activity log. The subjects also completed several standardized and validated research survey questionnaires to evaluate mood, perceived energy level, fatigue, vitality, vigor.

The subjects were grouped into two groups, those who meet the CDC recommendations for activity (150 minutes per week moderate or 75 minutes vigorous exercise) and those who did not meet the recommendations. Since the activity monitors did not record body position, sedentary time was inferred from times of very low activity scores. The subjects were segregated into high and low sedentary groups based upon average sedentary (inactivity) times greater than or less than sixty minutes per day. Thus, there was a 2×2 matrix of: P1, meets recommended activity level and low sedentary time; P2, meets recommended activity level and high sedentary time; P3, does not meet recommended activity level and low sedentary time; P4, does not meet recommended activity level and high sedentary time.

As found in earlier studies, those meeting recommended activity levels reported higher levels of vigor and vitality than those who did not meet recommended activity levels. But among the group not meeting the recommended activity levels, those with low sedentary time reported less fatigue and more vigor than those with high sedentary time. And while for those with low sedentary time there was no association with whether or not they met the recommended activity levels, those with high sedentary time reported more vigor and vitality and less fatigue associated with recommended activity levels.

This study supports recent findings that prolonged inactivity is a distinct health risk from lack of exercise. Meeting current activity levels are associated with higher energy levels and lower fatigue levels and, therefore, contribute to productivity and quality of life. But prolonged sedentary behavior is separately associated with higher levels of fatigue and may result in lower productivity and life quality. Further, there is a likely benefit to breaking sedentary tasks into shorter bouts.

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