“Insignificant” Daily Activities Count for Keeping Weight Off


A woman working in her yard counts as incidental exercise for calories burned.

Engaging in a heart-pumping, sweaty workout most days of the week is one approach to keeping your weight under control. Then combine it with a healthy diet. A smart strategy yet it’s easy to forget that what you do when you’re not doing a HIIT routine or a circuit workout matters too. Even if you exercise for an hour a day, which most people don’t, you’re only spending about 1/16 of your waking hours exercising. What you do with the other 15 hours you’re awake counts too. That’s where incidental exercise comes in. The non-structured exercise that you do here and there is called “incidental exercise.” These are the “bite-sized movements: you do throughout the day – taking the stairs, running an errand on foot, taking the dog outside, and picking weeds in the garden.

Incidental Exercise Matters for Weight Control

How important are these unstructured movements for weight control? In a recent study carried out by researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health, researchers looked at the impact incidental exercise has on weight control. The participants were healthy individuals who had lost at least 30 pounds and maintained the weight loss for a year or more. To measure their physical activity, the participants wore a tracker called an inclinometer that registered when they were sitting, standing, or lying down.

What they found was participants who were most successful at keeping the weight they lost off were those who stayed more active throughout the day. In fact, participants who were successful at maintaining a lower body weight took, on average, more than 12,000 steps per day. Recommendations are that we shoot for 10,000 steps per day, around 5 miles, but the successful weight loss maintainers took even more steps.

How many steps does the average American take in a day? It varies based on gender. According to a 2010 study, the average U.S. male chalks up around 5340 steps while the average female takes about 4912 steps. How does this compare to other countries? The U.S. falls short, at least relative to parts of Europe. In France, Germany, and the U.K., people take, on average, around 6330 steps per day. In fact, Americans average 18% fewer steps than folks in European countries. So, we have some catching up to do! We may be busy but it isn’t translating into more steps.

Unless you make a conscious effort to add more incidental exercise to your life, you’re likely to fall short. These days, too many people work desk jobs for 8 or more hours a day. If you’re like the average person, you drive to work, park as close to the building as possible, take the elevator to your office, and repeat the process when you go home. Even worse, the average person parks in front of the television for an hour or two after work to relax.

Unfortunately, technology makes it easier than ever not to expend calories. There’s a remote control to change the television station and one day in the future you may have a robot to go to the kitchen and fetch you a snack. So, don’t count on incidental exercise to increase for the average American.

If You Can’t Move Around at Work, at Least Fidget More

So, how can you get more incidental activity? If possible, get up and move around at work, every 20 minutes. Go up and down the stairs. Find a reason to visit the other side of the building. Those short periods of activity add up to more calories burned over the course of a day. Plus, movement takes your body out of “idle” mode. That’s important since studies show that prolonged sitting causes unfavorable changes to blood lipids.

Just as concerning is a study showing uninterrupted sitting increases the level of a protein called C-peptide, a marker for a higher risk of heart disease and mortality. The good news? Breaking up sitting every hour with 8 minutes of moderate-intensity cycling attenuated this effect. Separating those periods of sitting with short periods of exercise helps mitigate the effects of too much sitting.

What if you’re saddled to a desk and can’t get up? Fidget more. You might think movements, like shaking your leg, bouncing your shoulders, and tapping your pencil on the desk, are insignificant as far as controlling your weight. No so. According to the Mayo Clinic, fidgeting can burn up to 350 extra calories a day. If possible, get a standing desk and eliminate your chair. If a standing desk isn’t an option, rise to your feet up when you’re doing activities that don’t’ require a chair, like talking on the phone.

Moving around at work isn’t intuitive. It’s easy to fall into sedentary habits unless you consciously try to move more. Set alarms to remind yourself to move or wear a fitness tracker so you’re aware of how much you’re moving about during the day. You’d probably be surprised at how much time you spend sitting over the course of a day or week.

The Bottom Line

Don’t get too comfy in your chair and don’t underestimate the benefits incidental exercise, including fidgeting, has on your body weight bottom line. Of course, you still need structured exercise, including strength training, but moving your body more throughout the day and not letting it idle helps with weight control as well. Even more importantly, sitting is an independent risk factor for mortality – and it’s hard on the muscles in your neck and back as well as your posture. The less you do of it, the better for your waistline and your health.



Journal of Applied Physiology Published 15 December 2013 Vol. 115 no. 12, 1751-1756 DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00662.2013.

PLoS One. 2015; 10(1): e112281. Published online 2015 Jan 5. doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0112281

Live Science. “Successful Weight Losers: Here’s How Much Less Time They Spend Sitting”

Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Nov;43(11):2189-94. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31821e4ff2

Very Well. “What’s Typical for Average Daily Steps?”

Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 42, No. 10. 2010;1819–1825.

News.Medical.Life Sciences. “Reducing Sitting Time to Less Than Three Hours per Day Could Increase Life Expectancy”


Related Articles By Cathe:

For Health and Longevity, Every Movement Counts

3 Ways Sitting Less Can Improve Your Work Day and Work Performance

Why You Shouldn’t Depend on Exercise, Alone, to Lose or Maintain Your Body Weight


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