Do You Have an Exercise "Set Point?"

We’re all familiar with thermostats-- devices designed to maintain a certain temperature in our homes. On winter days when my house temperature dips below 64 degrees, the heater kicks in, bringing the indoor temperature back up to a cozy 68. The thermostat works hard to maintain a certain set point for our comfort, and we’re usually blissfully unaware of its efforts.

Scientists are studying a similar phenomenon with people and our levels of physical activity. They refer to this concept as an “activitystat,” or our innate set point for movement or activity level. More specifically, they’re studying whether exercising at one point in the day effects one’s activity level for the remaining hours in the day. 

Take a moment to recall days when you exercise, whether it’s a morning jog, a hike, or a high-energy spin class. Do you feel your activity level is elevated for the remainder of the day, or are you more likely to have reduced activity after your workout? 

This is probably a tough question to answer, because as with the thermostat in our homes, we may be unaware of these patterns. 

Unfortunately, the “activitystat” findings have been contradictory. Some studies show that exercising leads to greater inactivity in the remaining hours of the day. These studies theorize that our bodies do have a set point for activity level, and your body will naturally compensate for your burst of activity by slowing you down for the rest of the day.

If this is true, then it could have huge implications for the healthcare and fitness industries as well as for the battle against childhood obesity and the fight to keep physical education in schools. This could explain why we remain overweight, despite our best efforts to exercise.

The other side of the argument is that one’s level of activity is mostly determined by one’s environment—particularly by the actions and attitudes of family, friends, and other influencing personalities we interact with. For children, these findings also suggest that their living conditions greatly affect their level of physical activity. 

While the answer may be ambiguous, the question is still relevant to all of us.

We should be more aware of our activity and inactivity patterns. Do we think we deserve to sit on the couch for hours because we worked out that morning? Or is exercising the key to a having a full day of energy? Either way, what is important is that we incorporate activity into each day. Rather than thinking of “exercise” as one segment of your day measured in minutes, try to see it as moving, being busy, or even playing all day long. Here’s an example of an activity-packed Saturday that doesn’t even involve coming to the club:

Take a morning walk with the dog. Do some gardening and mow the lawn. Get the family together to wash the cars or clean the garage together. Then to reward yourselves, head to the park for a game of catch or frisbee. 

Whatever you choose to do, stay active!

Research taken from The New York Times online blog by Gretchen Reynolds: 10/19/11.