Through dedicated data collection, research professionals have arrived at distinct categories of “exercisers” within our population. As we might predict, the subtle variations in their activity levels do impact key aspects of health which, in turn, impacts longevity. Here’s what certified personal trainers should know.

The Sedentary/Activity Categories

What makes a couch potato a couch potato? And how could one possibly be an active one? Most recent research has decided on the following categories based on the usage of activity monitors worn over the course of one week for at least 10 hours a day, excluding water activities.

  • The aptly-named “couch potato” tends toward a lifestyle filled with long stretches of sedentary behavior and inability to reach a minimum of physical activity (generally defined as 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week). (Physically inactive/high sedentary)
  • “Light movers” similarly do not place an emphasis on much physical activity, yet do not log an abundance of sedentary hours (Physically inactive/low sedentary)
  • “Sedentary exercisers” do engage in regular physical activity yet still spend time sitting throughout the day.(Physically active/high sedentary)
  • The “busy bee movers” fully embrace physical activity while shunning idle couch time. (Physically active/low sedentary)


Image copyright: Bakrania, K. et al (2016). Associations of mutually exclusive categories of physical activity and sedentary time with markers of cardiometabolic health in English adults: a cross-sectional analysis of the Health Survey for England. BMC.

After accounting for an individual’s cardiorespiratory fitness, as well as making note of sleep hours/patterns, researchers found that the individuals in the three groups other than “couch potato” presented with improvements in cardio-metabolic health markers.

As personal trainers, we always strive to stress the importance of this concept to our clients. While the majority will no doubt clock a minimum of active exercise time, their endeavors may, unfortunately, get counteracted by a general overt lack of moving throughout the day.

What about “Active” Couch Potatoes?

The scientists involved in the aforementioned experiments defined “physically active” as an accumulation of at least 2 ½ hours, or 150 minutes, of moderate to intense activity over the course of a week. They discovered that engaging in such purposeful movement definitively paralleled a better health profile, even in those individuals with concomitant high sedentary time.

However, another set of researchers in Finland wanted to examine the interplay of sedentary time and physical activity, consequently measuring the health effects.

From their work, emerged a separate category of “active” couch potatoes, where the minimum recommended level of vigorous activity was indeed met, but the majority of the rest of their time was spent sedentary. Bearing in mind that this is not the US and there are inherent population differences, the categories are generally the same except for this distinction of meeting minimum physical activity requirements where typical couch potatoes do not.

However, one startling piece of evidence also emerged: individuals engaging in 30-40 minutes/day of moderate to vigorous physical activity, still coupled with a considerable amount of couch-potato time, faced the same risk of death as those with low amounts of sedentary time. Perhaps a statistical anomaly, but worth noting nonetheless.

This is an alarm bell for our clients who strive to “check the box” for exercise minimums and spend the rest of their day in a lull of inactivity. Thus, for personal trainers, the question remains clear: What else can we suggest to our clients, in addition to a daily bout of physical activity, to hold those sedentary hours at bay?

Scientists tell us that up to 40 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity might strike the necessary balance to counteract sitting still for ~10 hours. (recall that the minimum recommendations for vigorous activity is 75 minutes a week) The data culled from nine studies conducted in four countries and including over 44,000 subjects confirmed the suspicion that the risk of death among those with a more sedentary lifestyle went up as time spent engaging in moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity decreased.

Smart and NEAT

For those less inclined to the high-intensity approach, simply adding more light movement throughout the day would do the trick.

We refer to energy expenditure associated with spontaneous movement as Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT). According to the IUPS Thermal Commission, thermogenesis takes into account the “heat production due to metabolic energy transformation by processes that do not involve contraction of skeletal muscles”. Put simply, this translates into the body working smarter throughout the day.

As one would expect, NEAT corresponds to energy expenditure associated with ADL (Activities of Daily Living). This lies in contrast to exercise activity thermogenesis, which refers to the energy required to engage in any type of purposeful exercise (fitness, running, skiing, etc.). While the latter puts a greater energy drain on the body, in terms of caloric burn, NEAT movements truly do utilize a surprising amount of stored fuel.

“It takes energy — calories — to move even the smallest muscle,” explains exercise physiologist Polly de Mille, RN, Director of the Tisch Sports Performance Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. “For example, you burn about 1.5 calories per minute just lying still while your body performs its most basic functions.”  Simply transitioning from a horizontal position to sitting in a chair, the average adult burns 25% more calories.

Back to Basics

Our hunter-and-gatherer ancestors had no choice but to move through life, whether foraging for food, dodging dangerous situations, or merely planting for the following year’s harvest. By focusing upon increasing regular ambulatory motion, we can easily create a deficit of an additional 2,000 calories, even in the absence of a gym. When compared to an hour spent on a stationary cycle, which typically burns 300-400 calories, this seems like a very worthwhile endeavor!

While many of us succumb to the easier route of hiring professionals to perform chores such as housekeeping, cleaning and lawn maintenance, caring for one’s own home and its environs offers a positive and productive way to burn calories. From sweeping and vacuuming to weeding the garden, basic movement not only facilitates the maintenance of a healthy body but also sustains mental health. Once in the habit of regular movement, remaining seated for an extended period of time begins to feel unnatural and impractical.

Studies reported the effects of replacing sedentary behavior with light-intensity physical activity (LIPA) and/or moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) on at least one parameter associated with body fat. Scientists analyzed data culled from over 7,300 young adults. Replacing sedentary time with MVPA clearly aligned with a healthier total body fat percentage. The greatest magnitude of association came when subjects swapped 60 minutes of sedentary behavior with an hour of MVPA.

Stand Up and Burn

New research from the University of Queensland in Australia suggests that even swapping 2 hours a day of standing instead of sitting might confer some health benefits. The scientists provided activity monitors to more than 780 co-ed volunteers between the ages of 36 and 80.

“Participants wore activity monitors for 24 hours a day for one week, and from this data we were able to accurately determine how long each participant spent sleeping, sitting or lying down, standing and stepping, which included walking and running,” says the co-author of this study, Genevieve Healy.  “We also took blood samples and measured blood pressure, height, weight and waist circumference.”

The data revealed that an extra 2 hours/ day simply standing instead of sitting led to ~2 % average reduction in fasting blood sugar levels, and 11 % lower average triglycerides.

The real challenge for so many of us lies in finding the time to stand up. We all have the same 24 hours in each day; thus, modifying some mundane activities normally performed in a sitting position to a full vertical posture might help squeeze in those extra 2 hours. We might suggest that our clients try working and/or reading from a stand-up desk, a trend seen in more and more offices throughout the country. Watching television or eating dinner while standing may seem odd and perhaps slightly uncomfortable at first, but our bodies and minds easily adapt over time.

Benefits Beyond Body Fat

Fifty-nine white-collar workers (40 males and 19 females) performed an “active rest” program, consisting of a warm-up, cognitive functional training, aerobic exercise, resistance training and cool-down, 3 times a week for 10 weeks. The workout took approximately 10 minutes to complete. The control group did not participate in any exercise format.

After 10 weeks, participants reported a positive change in work relationships, friendliness towards colleagues, better mental health status, and an easier adaptation to increased physical activity even outside of the parameters of the workplace experiment.

Inspiring Your Couch Potatoes

While some scientists may deem it acceptable and even adequate to remain an “active couch potato” into one’s senior years, fitness experts will always debate this notion. As seasoned personal trainers, we recognize that clients’ motivation can run the gamut of high to low on any given week. We need to underscore the importance of moving more even if it’s not exercise-related movement. The best advice we can offer involves encouraging them to stay as active as possible — and off the couch— even when not working with us.


Cathleen Kronemer

Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at She welcomes your feedback and your comments!