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Just hitting the gym isn't enough

The gym: That altar to fitness, that sanctuary where we'll transform our flabby triceps into taut, tight muscles. Surely, at the gym we'll achieve the gleaming body of our dreams!

Well, maybe. Recent studies show, the gym may be an actual obstacle to fitness. Why? It turns out that overall accumulated activity in the course of a day is way more important than any one workout. If you spend half an hour on the elliptical machine, and most of the other 23½ hours of the day asleep, in front of the computer, behind a steering wheel or watching TV, that half-hour is not going to make much difference. Worse, it may deceive you into thinking you're doing a lot for your body and lull you into being inactive the rest of the time.

Dr. James Levine, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, has coined a mouthful of a term: "Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis" (NEAT), which refers to the calories burned not through artificial exercise, but through natural physical activities in everyday life. This includes raking leaves, gardening, walking the dog and doing the laundry. Ordinary activities, the kind our grandparents grew up doing, do count — and if done throughout the day, they can actually benefit you more than that elliptical machine.

For example:

Park your car in the driveway and don't get in it for a week. Better yet, a month. Walk. Walk to the bus, or ride a bike to work and to do errands.

Unplug your machines. Hang your laundry on the line instead of using the dryer (yes, it is possible in Humboldt, it just takes longer) and wash dishes by hand. Sweep and mop inside, rake leaves, weed and wash the car outside.

Stand up. A lot. Sitting is the new smoking. The very act of standing up every 20 minutes or so helps you get fit, improve circulation, reduce chances for chronic disease and lose weight. An Australian study showed that the more you sit, the more likely you are to die early, even if you're physically active.

Move more at work. Stretch, deliver messages in person instead of by email or phone, and institute walking meetings.

Climb stairs. Stair climbing is an efficient form of exercise that quickly increases heart rate and burns calories. Downtown Eureka and Arcata both have several two-story buildings that are open to the public during office hours.

Play with your kids. Playing tag or ball, walking on the beach, flying kites — all these model an active lifestyle and help everyone stay fit.

Put on a pedometer to measure your daily steps and get visual reinforcement. I'm not the only obsessive personality I know who is known to walk another five minutes before bedtime just to see a higher number on my pedometer.

Go outside. According to a 2004 study, about 50 percent of people who exercise outdoors stick with their exercise programs more consistently than those who train indoors. If you can't make yourself get out much, a dog will help.

People who are naturally kinetic, like my husband, are less likely to gain weight. He has never belonged to a gym, but he's a study in motion: running up and down the stairs, bending, kneeling, reaching, adjusting this and fixing that. Sure, he does his share of computer time and lies on the couch, but not for long uninterrupted periods. People like him don't schedule gym time — they just stay active.

Now for confession time: After bad-mouthing gyms, well, um, I belong to one. I'm self-employed, which means working alone, and I enjoy the camaraderie of a gym. Plus I like to have an alternative environment, someplace to go away from home most days. But my workout at the gym is probably the smallest part of my overall physical activity.

Try it. Incorporate more physical activities into your everyday schedule, and you may be surprised to find those last 10 stubborn pounds — the ones you have been struggling for months to shed at the gym — just slipping away. Mine did.

Louisa Rogers grew up an overweight and out-of-shape kid, but became an adult-onset fitness lover in her 20s, and that changed everything.

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Louisa Rogers

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