Here’s What Happens to Your Body When You Don’t Move All Weekend

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Craig Kellmann)

It’s a brutal winter. The world outside can be a horrible place. Can you blame anyone for wanting to cancel their plans, stay in, sleep late and watch TV all weekend? It’s self care, after all, and we can all get behind that.

I mean, it feels good to get cozy and binge on, well, pretty much any shows out right now. And who among us doesn’t need some more shut-eye? But if there’s a little nagging voice in your head that says maybe, just maybe, all this hibernation isn’t so good for us after all, well, that voice could be right.

For one, hiding out from the world can keep us from being our happiest selves. We need other people to be happy, reports NBC – in fact, “according to biology, neuroscience, psychology, and more, our bodies actually tend to work better when we’re not alone.”

But beyond the impact of cooping up alone, there are the repercussions of not moving enough. I’ve spent (more than) my fair share of winter nights and weekends ensconced on the couch in our TV room burning through one series after another. And I can tell myself I need the downtime – a full-time freelance career and side hustle Airbnb hosting keeps me on and going many hours a day – but I had to wonder about the physical cost of all this lying about. So I talked with Jacqueline Limberg, Ph. D., assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri, where they just happened to have done some research into what happens to our bodies when we’re sedentary. Another of their professors specializes in the very topic.

Annnnnd there’s some bad news.

The Science Behind Your Sedentary Weekends

Here’s the deal. Limberg and her colleagues had some people come to the lab for experiments where they sat still for three hours (otherwise known as about three episodes’ worth of The Handmaid’s Tale). These intrepid subjects either sat upright, laid on their side, or sat while wiggling their legs (I hope they let them use their phones during this experiment – can you imagine?). Afterwards, researchers assessed their blood vessel health.

And whether they were sitting or lying, the people who were immobile showed “significantly lower” blood flow, Limberg says. How low? Like, almost to the level of someone who’s at higher cardiovascular risk.

Let’s talk specifics. Vessel function went down by four percentage points after three hours, Limberg says. That’s not awful, is it? Well, in larger studies, she says, they’ve seen it only takes a one percent drop to bump up risk of something like a heart attack by 13 percent. Yes, even if you’re otherwise healthy and fit.

Ok, I’m sufficiently horrified.

(Image credit: Liz Calka)

How to Balance Your Binge-Watching

There’s some good news. You can prevent this. If you do 45 minutes of exercise – anywhere from fairly light to somewhat hard during the day that can prevent the dangerous reduction. So maybe get out and take the dog for a walk, or go to yoga, and you’re good. For that matter even jiggling your leg the whole time you’re lounging keeps the blood flowing (although that’s super annoying for the other person on the couch).

But you’re not in the clear yet. There’s also the risk of diabetes. Another study at the school found that when people restrict their physical activity for three days their measured sensitivity to insulin – their risk of diabetes – went up. And just going back to normal activity for one day doesn’t immediately bring it back down. So if you spend your three-day weekend re-watching every season of Deadwood and get back to working out on Monday, too bad.

Yikes. Thinking of all the times I’ve stayed on that cozy couch between episodes, reading A.V. Club reviews (my obsession) while my husband goes downstairs for our Yasso frozen yogurt bars (my other obsession), my heart sinks. I knew I was being kind of a sloth, but I had no idea how much I could be causing myself harm.

I’m not ready to cancel my Netflix subscription just yet, but after talking with the professor I am certainly going to be more intentional about getting exercise every day, and at minimum removing myself from the couch between episodes – maybe I’ll be in charge of going downstairs for those nightly treats now.