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Simple exercises to support lymphatic flow, circulation and metabolism

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One of the downsides of gym culture is that, having worked out a few times a week, many people think being sedentary the rest of the time is okay.

The reality is that this sudden shift from 0-100 miles an hour can shock the body and cause the very stress you’re trying to avoid. Rather than allocating exercise to specific, corralled time slots, it’s vital to move regularly throughout the day – ideally a little every hour.

This type of movement is often referred to as “spontaneous physical activity” or “incidental” exercise, as it’s simply about moving more in the context of your day – wherever you are, whenever you can.

Although you can feel a number of bodily functions as you sit, for instance your pulse, many processes rely on motor activity to keep them flowing. The lymphatic system, for example, needs you to move for its immune and detoxification effects.

Fluids can easily pool and stagnate when you are not continually moving them against the action of gravity. Long stationary periods can contribute to circulatory issues caused by loss of vein integrity, such as edema (fluid retention), cellulitis, varicose veins and hemorrhoids.

How we evolved to move
Humans are built to move. Your metabolism (the rate at which you use energy) rises in response to signals that you need energy as physical activity increases. If you don’t move around enough, energy usage can slow down, leaving the body more disposed to fat storage than building muscle.

Simply put, the more you move, the more efficient body processes become. Consequently, related systems such as blood sugar and appetite are more easily regulated. This means sugar and other food cravings can be better managed.

But it’s not simply about ‘more, harder, faster’ movement. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have had a widely varied system of movement and activity mostly built around necessary tasks – walking, running, building, mending, climbing, etc. – with no comfortable furniture to lounge around on.

Survival within that lifestyle required plenty of necessary movement and calorie burning from finding food and water, social interaction, escaping predators, building homes, making tools, washing clothes and carrying babies – all in much harsher environments than we usually find ourselves in today.

Hunter-gatherers were common until about 10,000 years ago. Their naturally active lifestyles meant they weighed an average of 30 lb (14 kg) less than we do today and expended about 400-600 calories more daily, but also with fallow periods and imposed fasting.

The energy expenditure of a typical Westerner is about 38 percent that of our primitive hunter-gatherer ancestors.1

Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, describes in his book, The Story of the Human Body, how our ancestors would have alternated high-activity days with less demanding days to have adequate rest.

However, their low-activity days would not have been the complete inactivity we equate with rest today. Rather, they were times to rebuild tissues and reduce the risk of injuries.

This sets the pattern of exercise that we have evolved to be best suited to: a variety of activities performed intermittently and with different levels of intensity, with adequate rest in between to ensure complete bodily recovery between exertions.2

As we now have food readily available, permanent and reliable shelter, no predators to worry about, and transport to move ourselves and the things we need to carry, natural prompts to move and opportunities to do so are simply no longer there.

This gives us the difficult task of motivating ourselves to get up and do things we simply don’t need to.

How to move
The best forms of spontaneous physical activity are those we can weave into our everyday lives, such as taking the stairs rather than the elevator. They all add up. Here are some top tips.

Get a pedometer, and aim to clock up about 10,000 steps a day, five or six days a week. A review of over 30 studies found that relatively healthy adults take 7,000 to 13,000 steps a day.3 Those meeting this 10,000-step target are more frequently classified as ‘normal’ weight, and those getting less than 5,000 a day are more frequently classified as obese.4

Every step counts, even walking to the kitchen for a snack, but roughly speaking, 3,000 steps is about half an hour’s walking.

Walk the dog. Studies have linked owning a dog to better heart health, more physical activity, healthier diet and lower blood sugar.5

Take the stairs. Research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that women who ran up and down the stairs at work for two minutes at a time, five times a day boosted their fitness over an eight-week period.6 Most of us are time-poor, but if you get up and move around every hour or so, you’re keeping your metabolism more fired up than if you were just sitting for four hours straight until lunch.

Get together
“Social setting exercise” – that is, any activity that requires more than one person – is especially beneficial, not only because of its cardiovascular effects but also its ability to help you connect with other people, have fun and engage in some healthy competition.7

We are pack animals, and the cohesion of the tribe is key to survival, so our brains reward these behaviors with a shot of that motivating neurotransmitter dopamine. This can help bring us out of our often overstimulated mental states and burn off stress hormones generated during a typical week.

Engaging in social exercise once or twice a week can help to naturally incorporate physical activity into family and social gatherings.8 Having a relationship with others that involves physical activity and contact raises the feel-good chemicals beta-endorphins and the anti-stress hormone DHEA.

Both of these have key roles in immune and nervous system regulation and protection against chronic degenerative diseases such as osteoporosis, heart disease and diabetes. Exercise is, of course, also preventative and helpful for such conditions.9

Social exercise doesn’t just have to be through formalized sports such as tennis or golf but can also be activities like:

• Community gardening or conservation
• Picking up litter with a group – great to get children involved in
• Outdoor swimming
• Throwing and catching a ball
• A game of ‘it’ or ‘tag’
• Dancing – with others this is really plugging into how we have bonded with our tribe for thousands of years.

Any activities that can involve being outside in nature, laughing with others and having fun are extremely nourishing on all mind-body levels.

Exercises to encourage more movement
Here are some simple movements that can be woven into daily life – when waiting for a kettle to boil or taking a screen break, for example. These can be an opportunity to counter stagnation and support lymphatic flow, circulation and metabolism.

Move your arms
Moving the upper body – around the chest, heart, shoulders, neck and arms – frees up tightness from stress that can contribute to tension headaches.

Move into your hips and lower back
After long periods of sitting, the lower back can seize up, particularly if you’ve been slumping. Continually coming back to mobility there can help prevent the low back pain so com
mon in sedentary cultures.

Use your legs
These motions replicate the walking motion and, with the arms above the head and the twist, really get the circulation moving.

Spontaneous activities to try
• Carrying shopping bags home – evenly distribute the weight over both arms
• Gardening
• Cycling to and from work
• Getting off the bus a stop early to walk
• Parking the car farther away from where you need to be or where you can walk through a park to get there
• Walking the dog
• Vigorous housework
• Putting washing out on a line
• Carrying and chasing after a baby
• DIY projects
• Cleaning out a shed or cupboards you’ve been meaning to get to
• Buying your lunch from somewhere you have to walk farther to
• Dancing – with others or alone to your favorite tunes

1 Int J Sports Med, 1998; 19: 328-35
2 Am J Med, 2010; 123: 1082-86
3 Res Q Exerc Sport, 2001; 72: 1-12
4 Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord, 2001; 25: 1571-8
5 Mayo Clin Proc Innov Qual Outcomes, 2019; 3: 268-75
6 Br J Sports Med, 2005; 39: 590-3
7 J Am Geriatr Soc, 2003; 51: 1685-92
8 Can J Public Health, 2007; 98 Suppl 2: S208-17
9 Compr Physiol, 2012; 2: 1143-211

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