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SWAP Your Way to Health

Summarized from Dan Pardi’s “Enduring Mover” framework and Chris Kresser.

Regular exercise has been found to help prevent many chronic diseases and health concerns ranging from obesity to cardiovascular disease to type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cancer, osteoporosis, anxiety, depression, insomnia, dementia, Alzheimer’s, risk of falls, and early death, and that is just a partial list.

Other benefits of regular exercise include reduced stress hormones, better mood and outlook, improved self-confidence, extra outdoor time, prevention of cognitive decline, boost of brain function and memory, helping to control addiction, increased productivity and creativity, and better physical and mental performance.

Unfortunately, we have become a nation of sitters, at work, increasingly; even during our leisure time, with things such as video games and social media; and while commuting. The average office worker only expends about 10 calories per pound of body weight each day. Compare that to 43 to 55 calories per pound of body weight expended by hunter–gatherers, and that is a really big difference. Increased sitting and decreased physical activity has had a major negative impact on nearly all aspects of human health.

Let’s talk a little bit more about sitting. It has been shown to impair metabolic function, to decrease the activity of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase, or LPL, which is associated with higher triglycerides, lower levels of HDL, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Sitting reduces insulin sensitivity and weakens bone density, and it may have harmful effects on blood flow and increased damage to blood vessels. It also increases the risk of death from all causes, but particularly from cardiovascular disease, and it may impair cognitive function as we age. Vigorous exercise alone is not able to prevent the changes that are caused by too much sitting or sedentary behavior. People who are lean tend to be physically active for more than 50 percent of the day. Excess vigorous exercise can also lead to overtraining when people try to make up for sedentary lifestyles by exercising too hard.

Our Paleolithic ancestors did not work out, formally at least. Movement was just a way of life. Humans had to exert themselves strenuously to survive. We spent time outdoors walking, hunting, gathering, and playing. Anthropological research suggests that our ancestors sprinted, jogged, climbed, carried, crouched, and jumped throughout the day. They also walked an average of six miles and ran one-half to one mile per day. Women were as active as men. They alternated between days of strenuous demanding movement and rest, and their instinctual response to rest protected them from injury and fatigue.

Contemporary studies of hunter–gatherer populations have shown that they are highly active and average around 10,000 steps, or five miles, per day. These 10,000 steps are punctuated by frequent bouts of more intense physical activity. Studies of traditional Amish people have shown that they walk between 14,000 and 18,000 steps per day on average, and even in Western societies up until the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, the vast majority of people were highly active because we were still a nation of farmers. Changes in lifestyle, communication, technology, and food access have meant that the average American adult today, however, only gets between 5,900 and 6,900 steps per day.

Many concepts here about physical activity have been inspired by the Enduring Mover framework created by Dan Pardi. Enduring Movers maintain optimal health and fitness by incorporating both low- and high-intensity activity into their daily lives. The framework involves three elements, expressed by the acronym SWAP: stand, walk, and push.


Standing engages postural muscles that increase LPL, or lipoprotein lipase, activity, and this increases energy expenditure 2.5-fold when compared to sitting. Employees who stand while they work burn up to 75 percent more calories per day than those who sit all day. Simply standing and engaging in light activity throughout the day burns as many calories as three intense spinning classes per week, and this is more effective than intense exercise at undoing the harms from excessive sitting. Frequent breaks from sitting lead to lower waist circumference, lower BMI, lower triglycerides, and more stable blood sugar. You can reduce sitting time by using a standing desk at work, taking standing breaks for at least two minutes every 30 to 45 minutes, brief walking or light movement every hour, and standing up at long meetings. The goal would be to stand for about half of the day and/or take a standing break every 30 to 45 minutes.


For walking, light movement throughout the day has been shown to be more effective for promoting good health than only doing high-intensity exercise and sitting. The typical goal would be to aim for 10,000 steps, or five miles of movement, per day, and wearing a step tracker allows you to know what your current movement level is and how to increase it.

Tips for increasing your step count include taking walking meetings at work; using the stairs whenever possible; walking or riding a bike to work; doing your own chores such as gardening, cleaning, laundry, and so forth; getting a dog, which will encourage more walks and physical activity; choosing hobbies that require physical activity; and working at a treadmill desk.

The goal would be to aim for 10,000 steps a day. Of course, if you are starting from a completely sedentary place, a lower goal would be more appropriate, maybe 5,000 steps a day to begin with and building up slowly from there. You can also incorporate light movement throughout your daily routine. During your breaks, you could potentially do some push-ups, body weight-type exercises, or run in place very gently. You can just start to begin to incorporate more physical activity, non-exercise physical activity, throughout the day.


Finally, push stands for more intense physical activity that we typically refer to when we use the word “exercise.” This would be anywhere from one to two times a week to four times a week or more. It includes high-intensity strength training and/or interval training. This has been shown to improve resting metabolic rate, improve blood sugar regulation, and reduce body weight and body fat percentage, and incorporating bouts of moderate- to vigorous-intensity movement throughout the day can also improve cognitive function and energy and reduce muscle and joint pain.

chart, funnel chart

“Intensity” is based on perceived effort rather than an objective marker. Moderate intensity would be 50 to 70 percent of maximum effort. Vigorous intensity would be 70 to 90 percent of maximum effort, and highest intensity would be 90 to 100 percent of maximum effort. (see diagram above) Maximum effort will depend on the individual and their particular fitness level. For someone who is sedentary, 50 to 70 percent of their maximum effort is going to look really different from someone who is very fit and has been exercising regularly.

The diagram above shows Dan Pardi’s Enduring Mover guidelines for moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise. They would include 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week, 30 minutes of the highest-intensity exercise per week, or some combination of the above.

Keep in mind that our ancestors did not overdo it. They instinctively conserved energy as much as possible, and they followed a strenuous workout day with lower-intensity fitness activities the next day in order to improve fitness and lower their risk of injury.

A Note About Overtraining

Excessive exercise habits can cut into valuable sleep time in order to fit in exercise before or after work for people who have a busy life, which is most people these days. People who overtrain may also sit more throughout the day due to fatigue or incorrectly assuming they are protected from the damage of sitting. For example, there was one study that showed that even marathon runners who sit for most of the rest of the time outside of their marathon training sessions were at increased risk for disease. Symptoms of overtraining include decreased performance, increased recovery time, fatigue or lethargy, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, memory issues, muscle or joint pain, low libido, amenorrhea in women, anxiety, and depression.

In Summary

Here is a summary of the basic movement recommendations.

  • Stand for half of the day.
  • Take a standing break every 30 to 45 minutes or even a short walking break.
  • Aim for 10,000 steps a day or perhaps a lower number if you’re just starting out.
  • Integrate as much light activity into your day as possible, whether that is chores such as gardening, bicycling or walking to work, taking the stairs, or walking the dog, integrating as much of that as possible throughout each day.
  • Aim for moderate- to high-intensity activity throughout the week, so that would be 150 minutes of moderate intensity, 75 minutes of vigorous activity, and 30 sets of the highest-intensity activity, or some combination of the above.

Small Habits Lead to Big Changes

As a final note, start with small steps. So often what happens with behavior and lifestyle changes, people overcommit, and then inevitably when they are not able to meet their goals, they get frustrated, and they stop. It is much better to start with very achievable, small micro-goals that then can increase the chances of success and then increase the likelihood that you’ll stick with it. Look for ways to slowly  increase your activity within the context of your daily life.

You don’t have to exercise vigorously every day. You don’t need to go to the gym and run on the treadmill every day. Two to three days per week of the more intense activity is plenty for most people if they have a higher amount of background physical activity throughout the week.

Also consider finding something that you enjoy doing that involves physical activity such as playing a sport, playing tennis perhaps, rock climbing, or something like that because you are much more likely to stick with it if it is something you enjoy doing above and beyond doing it just for the physical, emotional, and psychological benefits.  Working movement into daily life so that it is really something you don’t have to think about is the best method and approach for overall health and longevity.

Office Tools/Resources

  • Standing Desks
  • Treadmill Desks
  • Balance Disks
  • Yoga Ball

Frequent Breaks Apps (or reminders)

  • Time Out
  • Workrave

At-Home Equipment

  • Pull Up Bar
  • Abdominal Wheel
  • Weight Bench
  • Weight Vest
  • Suspension Trainers

Fitness Apps & Tracking Devices

  • Oura Ring
  • FitBit
  • My Fitness Pal
  • Nike+
  • FuelBand
  • Jawbone UP
  • Striiv
  • Freeletics
  • Yoga Wake Up
  • Daily Yoga
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