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Can Standing Promote Weight Loss, and How Much Movement Does It Take to Burn Off Your Favorite Junk Food?

calorie burning

Story at-a-glance -

  • Calorie counting doesn’t work in the long term because calories have different metabolic influence depending on their source. Nutrients also have varying thermic effects that affect their caloric impact
  • Exercise alone is ineffective for weight loss. You cannot out-exercise your mouth. To “work off” a Big Mac, large French fries and a can of soda requires at least 1 1/2 hours of moderate to intense cardio exercise
  • Sitting and standing burn about 80 and 88 calories per hour respectively. Walking burns nearly three times more calories; an hour walk resulting in an additional 130 calories being burned each day

By Dr. Mercola

Being slim is not necessarily proof of being in optimal health. Metabolic dysfunction can strike anyone not following an optimized diet. However, carrying excess weight significantly raises your likelihood of suffering health problems.

This is why childhood obesity is such a grave concern, as obese children are likely to suffer the consequences much earlier in their adult life.

The metabolic dysfunction, such as insulin and leptin resistance, that comes with obesity also triggers inflammation; a factor linked to a range of health problems, including but not limited to:

  • Hypertension, heart disease and stroke
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer's1
  • Kidney disease2
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)3

Why Diets Fail and Exercise Alone Cannot Counteract Weight Gain

Most overweight people have tried dieting. Most have failed to lose any significant weight. Or they lost weight and then gained it all back, plus an additional few pounds. Why is that?

The short answer is that this failure is due to using an ineffective and/or unsustainable approach. One of the keys to long-term weight management is healthy metabolism and mitochondrial function, and many diets actually create more dysfunction rather than correcting it.

Calorie counting is one of the many ineffective weight loss strategies out there. It doesn't work in the long term and the reason for this is because calories have different metabolic influence, depending on their source.

Starvation diets don't work either. Zoe Harcombe's book, "The Obesity Epidemic: What caused it? How can we stop it?" is an excellent primer exposing why simply eating less and moving more is not the answer to the obesity problem. Exercise alone is also ineffective. You simply cannot out-exercise your mouth.

The Impact of Movement on Calorie Burning

That said, movement is surely part of the long-term answer. Physical movement requires more energy to be used up than sitting or lying down. The question is, how much movement do you need?

A recent study4,5 evaluated the number of calories burned by different office activities. Seventy-four normal weight volunteers in their mid-20s were recruited and randomly assigned to one of four activity groups:

  1. Sitting down, typing on a computer for 15 minutes, followed by 15 minutes of standing still, making an effort to move and fidget as little as possible
  2. Sitting down, watching a television screen for 15 minutes, followed by a 15-minute stroll on a treadmill
  3. Standing up for 15 minutes, followed by 15 minutes of sitting
  4. Walking on a treadmill for 15 minutes, followed by 15 minutes of sitting

The volunteers all wore equipment that measured how many calories they were burning. The results showed that:

  • Sitting burns about 20 calories per 15 minutes, regardless of whether you're actively typing or not
  • Standing up burns about 22 calories per 15 minutes, or an additional eight to nine calories more per hour compared to sitting down
  • Walking burns nearly three times more calories than sitting or standing, with an hour of walking resulting in an additional 130 calories being burned each day

These results suggest that if you're trying to lose weight, standing up may not be enough. Walking more, on the other hand, could have a slight impact, provided you don't sabotage it with poor dietary choices.

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Standing Has Other Important Health Benefits

While standing still may have a negligible impact on the number of calories you burn, standing does increase the likelihood you'll move more in general. Standing also provides biological benefits besides calorie burning that make it well worth your consideration.

As explained by Dr. James A. Levine, co-director of the Arizona State University Obesity Solutions and author of the book "Get Up!: Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It," standing up triggers a number of beneficial molecular cascades.

For example, within 90 seconds of standing up, the muscular and cellular systems that process blood sugar, triglycerides, and cholesterol — which are mediated by insulin — are activated. All of these molecular effects are triggered by carrying your own bodyweight.

These cellular mechanisms are also responsible for pushing fuel into your cells and, if done regularly, will radically decrease your risk of diabetes.

Standing up May Radically Improve Your Productivity

Experiments done on call center workers have also shown that standing up during work can significantly improve productivity. After one month, call center representatives who stood up during their shift generated 23 percent more "successful" calls compared to their sitting counterparts. After six months, the standing employees had a 50 percent higher success rate compared to those who sat all day!

The results were so astonishing, one of the authors initially thought a mistake must have been made. As reported by The Washington Post:6

"More significant than the statistical evidence in productivity was the change in outlook ... Researchers noticed a difference in the workers' 'comfort, attitude about work and how they felt about themselves.'

But are the study's findings transferable to other lines of work, say an office worker at a busy law firm or a front desk clerk at a hotel? 'The simple answer is yes,' [study author Mark] Benden, Ph.D., said. 'I think that folks, like you and me, can improve our productivity.'"

What Does It Take to Burn Off That Junk Food?

Getting back to calorie burning, just how much physical activity does it take to burn off some of your favorite meals and snacks? As mentioned, you cannot out-exercise your mouth, and one of the reasons for this is due to the sheer amount of activity required to burn excess calories.

Another factor that plays into this equation has to do with the metabolic effects of calories from different sources, which I'll address in the next section. But first, take a look at the infographic7 below, which shows how much exercise you have to engage in to burn off eight popular junk foods, or check out their video above.

burn off junk foods
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To "work off" a single McDonald's Big Mac, men would have to do more than 40 minutes of cardio; women would have to go a bit longer, just over 50 minutes. If you had a large French fries with that, tack on another 40 minutes of cardio for men and 48 minutes for women.

If you had a can of soda, add yet another 12 to 14 minutes of cardio for men and women respectively. So to "neutralize" the calories in this one meal, which is a common combo, would require at least 1 1/2 hours of moderate to intense exercise.

Meanwhile, previous research suggests more than half of Americans over the age of 18 never engage in any vigorous physical activity lasting 10 minutes or more per week. If you do the math, it becomes easy to see how the extra pounds can stack up on your frame if you're sedentary and eat lots of junk food.

Calories Are Not Created Equal

Weight gain can be further aggravated by eating lots of metabolically harmful calories. What falls under this category? Primarily net carbs, which is the total carbohydrates minus fiber. For optimal health and disease prevention, I recommend keeping your net carbs below 40 or 50 grams per day. Primary culprits include all forms of sugar, as well as most grains, which turn into sugar in your body.

The dogmatic belief that "a calorie is a calorie" has done much to contribute to the ever-worsening health of the Western world. It's one of the first things dieticians learn in school, and it's completely false. Calories are not created equal. The source of the calories makes all the difference in the world. Groundbreaking research by Dr. Robert Lustig shows that calories from processed fructose are of particular concern.

According to Lustig, fructose is "isocaloric but not isometabolic." What this means is that identical calorie counts from fructose and glucose, fructose and protein, or fructose and fat, will cause entirely different metabolic effects. One of the reasons for this is due to the fact that different nutrients provoke different hormonal responses, and those hormonal responses determine how much fat your body will accumulate and hold on to.

Research8 shows that calories gleaned from bread, refined sugars and processed foods promote overeating, whereas calories from whole vegetables, protein and fiber decrease hunger. According to a 2015 meta-review9 published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, once you reach 18 percent of your daily calories from added sugar, there's a two-fold increase in metabolic harm that promotes pre-diabetes and diabetes.

Thermic Effects of Nutrients Impact Their Caloric Value

Another factor that impacts the effect of calories is the thermic effects of nutrients, meaning the amount of energy your body uses in order to break down the nutrient in question. For example, the energy used up in making protein available to your body is somewhere around 25 to 30 percent whereas the thermic effect of carbohydrates is 6 to 8 percent.

So even though the "calorie in" count may be identical, your body will burn off more of the protein calories than the carb calories. In addition to that, your body self-regulates its energy expenditure based on available energy. The other consideration is that your body is not a closed thermodynamic system like calories measured in the lab. Food will have other metabolic effects that can slow down metabolic rate, as through the thyroid.

Calories from fiber-rich carbs such as vegetables barely count when it comes to calorie consumption as they're very low in net carbs and provide valuable vitamins, minerals and fiber that nourish your gut microbiome. This is because your body can't burn fiber so fiber adds no calories.

Ideally, you want twice as many fiber carbs as non-fiber carbs (net carbs). So if your total carbs is 10 percent of your daily calories, at least half of that should be fiber. Fiber is not digested and broken down into sugar, which means it will not adversely impact your insulin, leptin and mTOR signaling.

Another key is to eat more healthy fat and moderate your protein intake. Many would likely benefit from getting as much as 75 to 85 percent of your daily calories from healthy fats like grass-fed butter, olives and olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, raw nuts, and pastured eggs.10

Your Fat-Burning Ability Also Impacts Your Calorie Requirements

Many still believe and insist that weight gain is impossible unless you consume more calories than you expend. Alas, the metabolic influence of different calories pokes too many holes in this theory. Another wild card that is frequently overlooked is your body's ability to burn fat as its primary fuel. Due to insulin and leptin resistance, most people have impaired enzymes to burn fat, which lends credence to Lustig's assertions.

Once your body is well-adapted to burning fat as its primary fuel, it becomes very efficient at burning calories derived from fat — far more so than when you're primarily burning sugar for fuel. My diet is 75 to 80 percent fat and I eat approximately 3,500 calories a day. That's well over the conventional recommendation of 2,400 to 2,800 for an active man of my age.11 However, I burn fat so efficiently, if I go below 3,500 calories a day, I lose weight.

If you currently burn sugar as your primary fuel, then rapidly and significantly increasing your healthy fat intake may not be beneficial and could result in weight gain. Your body simply isn't adapted to burning all that fat yet, and fat is very high in calories.

So go slow, and remember that one of the keys to making this metabolic switchover is to dramatically cut your sugar consumption. As long as you're giving your body sugar, it will use that first. Intermittent fasting can also speed up your body's transition from burning sugar to burning fat as your primary fuel.

intermittent fasting
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To Rein in Your Weight, Eat Real Food and Stay Active

In a nutshell, if you're concerned about your weight and health, you need to address the quality of your food, the ratio of carbs, fats and protein, and increase your physical activity level. Don't make the mistake of trying to figure out which processed foods are "good" for you and which ones aren't. A far more effective rule is to simply eat real food, as close to its natural state as possible. These simple and easy-to-remember guidelines will set you off on the right track:

Eat REAL FOOD: buy whole, ideally organic, foods and cook from scratch. First of all, this will automatically reduce your added sugar consumption, which is the root cause of insulin resistance and weight gain.

If you buy organic produce, you'll also cut your exposure to pesticides and genetically engineered (GE) ingredients, and in ditching processed foods, you'll automatically avoid artificial sweeteners and harmful processed fats. Opting for organic grass-finished meats will help you avoid GE ingredients, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and other growth promoting drugs.

Reduce net carbs: to 50 grams a day or less and restrict protein to 1 gram per kilogram of lean body mass. The remaining calories would come from high-quality fat sources like avocados, butter, coconut oil, macadamia and pecans. For more detailed dietary advice, please see my free Optimized Nutrition Plan.

Consider intermittent fasting: if you're still struggling with excess weight after you've cleaned up your diet, you may want to reconsider the timing of your meals. Intermittent fasting can be very effective for helping your body shift from sugar- to fat-burning mode.

Increase physical activity: this includes standing up more during your work day and walking more. Ideally, aim for 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day. Later you can add on a more regimented workout routine, which will really help maximize all the other healthy lifestyle changes you've implemented. But for general health and longevity, staying active throughout each day and avoiding sitting takes precedence.