Here’s a fact you shouldn’t take lying down: Unless something changes, you’ve already been the most active you will ever be. In fact, data shows you peaked by (or perhaps even before) the time you were 6 years old.
That number comes from researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who analyzed activity-tracking data for 12,529 Americans. The numbers came from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES), which included Americans from every demographic, beginning at age 6 and going up to ages 80-plus.
The NHANES required participants to wear accelerometers for seven days, which enabled researchers to tell when someone was moving and when they were still. The researchers then broke down numbers by age group in their paper, which reports some startling findings.
AT AGE 6, OUR ACTIVITY LEVEL IS AT IT’S LIFELONG HIGH
This finding will surprise no parent who’s reading this story with one eye while watching a kindergartener run circles around the living room with the other. But you might find it startling that the typical preschooler is out-moving you, even if you’re a marathoner or Ironman triathlete. How is that?
“As we get older we tend to move from play to exercise. Play is something that is naturally integrated into our lives. Whereas exercise, whether we do it or not, is something that we have to go do,” says Vijay Varma, the lead author on the study.
“Kids are naturally active day-to-day. They’re running around. They’re exploring. Their frontal lobes are developing so they’re like sponges for everything. They’re sort of naturally integrating all of this activity into their day. So, something we can learn from kids is: How do we naturally integrate activity?” Varma says. “One way of thinking is, let’s not focus so much on fitness at the gym, and let’s think more about our activity day-to-day.”
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Let’s be clear: Varma isn’t saying fitness is bad. What he is saying is it isn’t the only way to get people moving. And in fact, the calories people burn through activity that isn’t exercise, known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (or NEAT), can be far greater than what one can achieve through a workout.
FROM AGES 6-11, THERE’S A STEEP DECLINE IN HOW MUCH KIDS MOVE
And while it’s not nice to point fingers, it’s fair to say school is in many ways responsible for this decline.
“Attending school understandably involves lots of sitting time,” Varma says. “And when school budgets get cut, often what gets cut first are things that are a little more active like physical education classes or even woodworking. And while that’s not exercise, it involves getting up and moving around, which is a huge part of our total physical activity level.”
But this doesn’t mean you should go and get mad at your local school board. “The focus shouldn’t be on school is good or not good. It should be: What can school do to encourage activity?” Varma says.
ACTIVITY REALLY BOTTOMS OUT IN THE TEEN YEARS
Here’s the thing: The figures in the study might be under-reported, since the NHANES data analyzed came from 2003–2006, just before the advent of the smartphone.
“Screen time is a different thing now than what is was,” Varma says. “There’s data that suggests that physical activity may actually be lower today than what the paper reports because of smartphone use. But that being said, there are also some really cool applications that have actually shown to increase physical activity among teenagers, like Pokémon Go.”
Earlier this year the American Heart Association published a paper showing that, among people living sedentary lifestyles, those who played Pokémon Go walked an average of 2,000 steps more per day than those who didn’t. So for kids this age, activity apps can be a helpful tool.
BEGINNING IN OUR 20s, AMERICANS OF BOTH GENDERS START MOVING MORE
And while you might think that’s because people find full-time jobs which give them the money to buy gym memberships or start training for a half-marathon or marathon, the data shows that what’s driving the uptick in movement is light physical activity, which encompasses things like walking up and down stairs, going grocery shopping or even gardening.
“The accumulated effect of all these activities can have a huge impact on our total level of physical activity,” Varma says.
FROM MIDLIFE ON, MEN’S ACTIVITY LEVELS DROP OFF MUCH FASTER THAN WOMEN’S
From age 31 onward, females increasingly become more active than males. And again, it’s not driven by higher intensity activity.
“What we know is that less than 2% of total time spent active when you are middle age and after is moderate intensity physical activity,” Varma says. “So what is really driving your physical activity as you get older is the low-intensity level type of physical activity.”
Researchers found the principle difference between genders was that women spent less time sedentary and more time doing light physical activity from noon onward.
“It has everything to do with what they are naturally doing in their day,” Varma says. Going on a walk with friends, engaging with the community — all of those can be activities that help increase your overall physical activity.
In fact, for most people, focusing more on the little things that can make you active can add up to a big difference — especially as you get older. And finding ways to get more of these little movements in our day at every age may add up to a much healthier lifetime.
“While we can’t fight biology completely, what we can do is start thinking of what are the social structures around that encourage or don’t encourage activity?” Varma says.
GEAR UP FOR YOUR NEXT WORKOUT