By Bob Condor

Funny thing about what exercise means to American adults. Ask someone and you will likely hear answers like “running on the treadmill,” “lifting weights” or “taking a class.”

What you won’t hear is “taking the stairs instead of the elevator”, “parking your car in the farthest spots” or “using a bike to run light errands.” Yet all of these seemingly mundane activities can make a significant difference in your daily health.

Right about now, I’ll guess you are thinking, ‘OK, heard it before, know the drill, but come on, how can parking my car across the lot really matter?’ It all just sounds like the party line of the President’s Fitness Council or whoever is in charge of getting Americans off the couch.

Well, a March 2008 study from Danish researchers adds some statistical oomph to the message that all steps count. The lead author, Dr. Rikke Krogh-Madsen and colleagues at the Centre of Inflammation and Metabolism in Copenhagen, Denmark, found that making healthy young men use their cars rather than walk or bike and requiring them to use elevators and not take the stairs had adverse effects in as little as two weeks. The study was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study volunteers were men in their 20s with no history of weight issues, no family history of heart disease or smoking habits. One group typically walked 6,000 steps per day while the other walked 10,000 steps (the gold standard for ideal fitness). The forced use of cars and elevators reduced the daily steps for both groups to about 2,000—lower than a fair percentage of sedentary people.

What Krogh-Madsen discovered is that sharp reduction drags the men into unhealthy territory and fast. Within two weeks, the men were showing signs of increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and other causes of premature death. One particular alarming result was the men’s insulin levels, on average, increased 60 percent. This insulin surge occur because the body is no longer efficient at converting food into energy. In short, their metabolisms were misfiring.

Other negative outcomes included raised triglycerides—up about 18 percent in just two weeks—and a seven percent gain in abdominal fat even without gaining a single pound. Both are factors that increase heart disease risk.

The Danish study is hard evidence that little things help and that “physical activity” of any sort can replace or even trump “exercise.” It argues for lifestyle and doesn’t make it mandatory to have a gym or health club membership.

What makes this doubly important is the rapid onset of disease markers in otherwise healthy men. A similar downer effect occurred in 20-year-old men who were manipulated in a University of Chicago sleep lab to become seriously sleep-deprived in just two weeks’ time. After 14 nights of disrupting the male volunteer’s sleep patterns, researchers found the young males exhibited heart disease and hypertension risk equal to American men in their 70s.

Positive lifestyle changes (looking for all opportunities for physical activity, sleeping well and enough, eating the right foods) are much more powerful than most of us might anticipate. Just ask those volunteer subjects in Copenhagen and Chicago.

“Bob Condor is the Daily Health Blogger for Barton Publishing. He is also the Living Well columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He covers natural health and quality of life issues and writes regularly for national magazines, including Life, Esquire, Parade, Self, and Outside. He is a former syndicated health columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of six books, including “The Good Mood Diet” and “Your Prostate Cancer Survivors’ Guide.” He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and two 11-year-old kids.”