Sneak in a Workout While You Relax

Do you know someone who just never seems to stop moving? They might bounce their leg while they sit, twirl their pen, or walk back and forth while they're on the phone.

To those of us who don't fidget, this sort of constant movement seems annoying. But it's actually a healthy habit... That's because fidgeting is a simple way to sneak in extra physical activity throughout your day.

It's tough to carve out time in your busy day and devote those minutes to getting your body moving. And sometimes, all you want to do is just sit and relax. But you can still capitalize on those times when you're taking it easy...

Research has shown that fidgeting – or making small, repetitive movements – could have some surprising benefits. One study from the Mayo Clinic found that fidgeting while sitting could boost your energy expenditure by as much as 29%. Fidgeting while standing bumps that figure up to 38%. Another study from the National Institutes of Health reported that leg fidgeting improved blood-sugar fluctuation in folks who are obese. And scientists have even seen an association between fidgeting and a lower risk of death in a group of sedentary women.

But a brand-new study takes the idea of fidgeting to the next level... A team of researchers at the University of Houston discovered that moving just one leg muscle could boost your metabolism for hours – without having to get out of your chair.

It's called the soleus muscle. And it's one of the two main muscles that form your calves (the other one being the gastrocnemius muscle which sits atop the soleus). The soleus stretches up from your Achilles tendon to the back of your knee.

When we're looking at the makeup of our muscles, there are two types of muscle fibers – type 1 and type 2. Type 2 fibers contract quickly for short, powerful bursts of energy, giving them their nickname of "fast twitch" fibers. On the other hand, type 1 fibers move slowly and are also called "slow twitch" fibers.

Type 1 fibers can work for long periods before tiring out, which makes them great for endurance activities. They're necessary for stabilizing your posture and bones, too. And they don't require large amounts of energy because they use less stored sugar molecules (called glycogen) than type 2 fibers do. (Your body breaks down carbohydrates from food into small sugar molecules, or glucose, that cells need for energy. Any leftover glucose gets rounded up and linked together into chains of glycogen which your liver and muscles store as energy reserves.)

The soleus is made up of mostly type 1 fibers. Along with allowing you to walk, run, or stand, the soleus has the critical task of constantly pumping blood back up to your heart. In fact, one nickname for the soleus is "your body's second heart," since it plays such an important role in keeping your blood moving.

The two-part study had a total of 25 participants. For the first half of the study, researchers took muscle and blood samples at two points – one halfway into the test and the other at the end – from 10 participants who sat still for four and a half hours. Next, the same folks performed seated "soleus pushups" (more on what this is in a moment) for the same length of time as in the control test, and muscle and blood samples were taken at the same intervals, too.

The tissue samples confirmed that the soleus didn't use much glycogen, relying more on circulating fats and glucose in the bloodstream for energy instead. And the blood samples showed that doing the pushups doubled the rates of glucose and fat metabolism and reduced triglyceride levels. (Triglycerides are the "bad" fats found in your blood and are linked to cardiovascular disease.)

In the second half of the study, the remaining 15 participants were given a sugary drink and did the seated soleus pushups for three hours – with blood samples taken every 15 minutes. Compared with samples taken during the control test (where the same folks had the sugar but sat without doing pushups), samples taken during the soleus pushups test showed a 52% improvement in blood sugar levels after eating and a 60% reduction in having a higher-than-normal amount of insulin in the blood.

These remarkable results show even simple, low-effort movements can have impressive health benefits – even while you're sitting. The movement showed functional improvements that could benefit folks with metabolic disorders like Type 2 diabetes and those with mobility issues.

This research is still in its infancy, so don't swap out your regular exercise with the soleus pushup alone. The team says they're still working to develop the best way to do this move outside of a laboratory setting. But it's still an easy leg movement you can do if you have to stay seated. Here's how the team roughly described the pushup:

  1. Sit in a chair with your knees hip-width apart. Relax your leg muscles and be sure both feet are flat on the floor.
  2. Next, raise both heels while keeping the front halves of your feet firmly planted on the floor.
  3. When your heels are as high as they can go, let them passively drop back down to the floor.
  4. Repeat this motion while you sit comfortably.

You can also click here to see an example of the movement in this video of the study.

So the next time you're on an airplane or watching a movie, you can give soleus pushups a try. The key is remembering to take advantage of your sitting time and make it active. Any extra movement – even the smallest ones – adds up to better health and a longer, happier life.

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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
November 17, 2022