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Why Couch Potatos Are Tired

written by Marie-Josée Shaar 24 June 2010

Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.

650 words;  Reading time: approximately 2 minutes

Last month I talked about How Physical Activity Enhances Productivity. To give the flip side of the coin, this month I’ll address the top 5 ways that inactivity increases fatigue.

Couch Potatos

Couch Potatos

1- Sleep difficulties.  The relentless demands of modern life lead our bodies to produce excess cortisol, a stress hormone linked to insomnia. Excess cortisol comes at the expense of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates sleep. For a better night’s sleep, you therefore need to reduce cortisol and increase serotonin. The best way to accomplish both simultaneously is through exercise. But if you prefer to hit the couch when you get home from work, you might be up watching longer than you’d like! Your out of balance biochemicals will retaliate and give you (another?) sleepless night. When getting a good night’s sleep is difficult, feeling energetic the next day becomes one big challenge.

2- Frail muscles. When it comes to muscle mass and strength, the motto “use it or lose it” definitely applies. People who are injured and have a limb immobilized start losing muscle cells as quickly as 6 hours after immobilization. Since muscle is a powerful calorie-consumer, consuming between 50 to 75 times more calories than fat does, lower muscle mass easily leads to weight gain. More importantly, less muscle mass makes anything slightly physical require more effort. Imagine how difficult it is for someone who has excess weight and weak muscles to carry that weight around just to get out of the car, climb a flight of stairs, walk down the hallway, and lift a box of paper before getting the day at work started? Ouf! I’m tired just thinking about it!

Heart as Pump

Heart as Pump

3- Weak cardio-vascular performance.  The heart is a muscle. Like other muscles, it atrophies with lack of exertion. A weaker heart pumps a smaller volume of blood with each beat, requiring more beats to do the same work. Sedentary people therefore tend to have higher heart rates and lower oxygen consumption than active individuals. Since the body needs oxygen to transform nutrients into energy, with lower oxygenation comes lower energy. Along with higher heart rates come fatigue. It’s a lot of extra work for your heart!


4- Poor nutrition.  Physical activity helps balance cortisol and serotonin.  These two biochemicals have a lot to do with food consumption. Indeed, people with higher cortisol levels tend to look for quick feel-good boosts easily found in sugary and fatty foods. With low serotonin, cravings peak and are harder to control. In other words, inactivity combines two very important ingredients that can lead to overeating. In the short term, overeating will require a lot of your precious energy for digestive purposes.  It will also bring your sugar levels on a roller-coaster ride that will leave you feeling depleted within the hour.

Feeling Grouchy?

Feeling Grouchy?

Over the long run, overeating leads to weight gain, which increases fatigue by forcing you to spend more energy for everything you do.


5- Low morale.  This one is quite intuitive, but let me explain it just the same. Through its impact on biochemicals, physical activity is known to reduce stress, depression, and anger. It simultaneously elevates mood, self-esteem, and energy levels. Comparatively speaking, sedentary people are therefore less likely to be emotionally healthy than active individuals. More and more research is showing that inactivity is likely to bring about feelings of emotional exhaustion, physical tiredness, and overall lousiness.

What does this all mean for people who feel too tired to exercise? Simple: understand that being sedentary makes you tired – not the other way around!  In order to feel better, you need to be more active. The body is somewhat like your smart phone: it runs out of power after a long day. But unlike your smart phone, plugging yourself in front of the TV will only perpetuate a bad thing. Get moving instead, and then enjoy a good night’s sleep! Exercise and Zs are by far your best battery-chargers!




Boyle, M.A. & Long, S. (2007). Personal Nutrition, Sixth Edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Brooks, D.S. (2004). The Complete Book of Personal Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Dawson, D. M. & Komaroff, A. L. (2008). Harvard Medical School Boosting Your Energy. Boston, MA: Harvard Health Publication.

Dement, W. (2000). The Promise of Sleep: A Pioneer in Sleep Medicine Explores the Vital Connection Between Health, Happiness, and a Good Night’s Sleep . New York: Random House.

Diener, E. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Wiley-Blackwell.

Kessler, D. (2009). The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. New York: Rodale.

Mutrie, N. & Faulkner, G. (2004). Physical activity : Positive psychology in motion. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.). Positive Psychology in Practice. (pp. 146-164). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

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Roizen, M. F. & Oz, M. C. (2005). YOU: The Owner’s Manual, Updated and Expanded Edition: An Insider’s Guide to the Body that Will Make You Healthier and Younger. New York: HarperCollins.

Rosick, E. (2005). Cortisol, stress and health. In Life Extension Magazine.

Somer, E. (1999). Food & Mood: The Complete Guide to Eating Well and Feeling Your Best, Second Edition, Second Edition. New York: Holt Paperbacks

Somer, E. (2009). Eat Your Way To Happiness. Harlequin.

Weil, A. (2010, April 20). Job stress can lead to obesity.

Couch Potatoe courtesy of Caitlinator;
heartpump courtesy of ohhhbetty
Feeling Grouchy courtesy of joanna85555.

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Amanda Horne 24 June 2010 - 4:40 pm

Hi Marie-Josee

I enjoyed your article. The timing is coincidental. Earlier this week I attended a short session run by a nutrition expert / naturopath who has 25 years experience. Every day she sees the effect of cortisol on her clients. In our workshop she asked who had heard of cortisol, and few people raised their hands. It’s scary and often we’re not aware of its impact on our minds and bodies.

She gave a very strong message: if you have stress in your life you have to take your nutrition seriously: no caffeine, no sugar, proper amounts of protein, carbohydrates, fats, etc. When she was asked about moderation, she emphasised that during times when we’re under stress we need to take more drastic action, hence the very strict limits on foods which are not good for our bodies and minds.

Not very amusing were the questions from the group about how to plan to eat well when we’re all so busy. These questions from bright executives who work on complex problems everyday, and who work long hours for their clients, yet they weren’t sure how to manage their own nutrition.

Thanks again!

Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 28 June 2010 - 11:04 am

Amanda – thanks for your comment! It is so true that people commonly think they are too busy to eat right, sleep enough and exercise a little! But in very many cases, if they did make the healthier choices a bit more often, their productivity would rise (better decision-making ability, lower mistake rate, higher creativity, greater resilience, higher energy and so lower procrastination, etc…) and so they wouldn’t be so busy in the first place! (Maybe I should consider this for a future article!)

For these busy executives, a little delegating can also definitely help! In the current conditions where teams are thinner and agendas overflowing, it can be a challenge. But challenges are made to be overcome! When I work with clients, I always focus on how we can make it work. While it is important to realize that health can be demanding, it is by focusing on the little things that we can easily integrate in our current lives that we get the ball rolling.


Jeremy McCarthy 28 June 2010 - 1:55 pm

Excellent article Marie-Josee,

When I’m trying to get someone off the couch (including myself)I remember how poor we are at predicting what will make us happy. Sometimes we get lulled into believing we are happier doing nothing but if we would just get out and do something (anything!) we would often realize we had miscalculated. Thanks for keeping us all educated (and motivated!)

Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 28 June 2010 - 10:03 pm

Very good point, Jeremy! Thanks for the hint – I’ll use it in the future!

Elaine O'Brien 1 July 2010 - 5:42 pm

Thank you Marie-Josee. This is a HOME RUN! What a terrific and timely article you’ve written about the perils of inactivity! Your research is excellent and ties in perfectly with the recommendation that “Exercise is Medicine.” You’ve given us great reasons why moving more and sleeping well truly improves our health, quality of life and longevity. I enjoy your terrific writing! Elaine O’Brien


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