A common saying is that we need to get in shape to play tennis, not the other way around. Tennis requires that we have strength, speed, stamina and mobility, but playing tennis alone will not develop these attributes, and in some cases can actually hurt them.
If we’re just playing tennis for our workouts we can end up with muscle imbalances that lead to decreased range of motion in our joints, stiffness and injury. And, particularly in matches, there can be a lot of standing around so sometimes tennis isn’t the cardiovascular workout we want it to be.
Non-Exercise Activity Time
When we think of getting in shape, most of us think of activities like running for endurance, interval training and lifting weights for strength and speed, and foam rolling and stretching for mobility. These can seem daunting to busy adults who can barely fit in tennis, let alone multiple trips to the gym every week.
Newer research is showing that there’s an important element of fitness that’s often overlooked and can be incredibly effective for achieving a healthy heart and a mobile body – both critical for playing tennis injury-free. Non-Exercise Activity Time (NEAT) could be a difference-maker in performance and injury prevention. The best part is that non-exercise activity can be incorporated into daily life, it doesn’t take extra time out of our days.
Dangers of Too Much Sitting
More research is emerging on the dangers of sitting too much. A lot of us work at desk jobs so can’t avoid hours every day spent sitting. On top of that, we spend the majority of our time outside of work commuting, eating convenience meals we didn’t have to prepare ourselves, reading books or screens, and watching tv – activities that are done sitting down.
As tennis players we might believe we’re unaffected – after all we play tennis nearly every day, we must be healthy!
Let’s do some math. If we assume that:
- we work at desks for 8 hours a day
- we sit for 5 hours at home each weekday evening (including eating, reading, watching tv and computer time – this might actually be a low estimate since according to this New York Times article the average American adult watches about 5 hours of television a day)
- we sit down 8 hours each weekend day
Then we’re looking at sitting (8+5) x 5 + (2×8) = 81 hours sitting down each week (almost 70% of our waking hours).
Even if we play an hour of tennis every day, that’s only 7 hours a week. For every hour we spend on the tennis court we’re sitting almost 12.
Fascia and Tight Muscles
What does too much sitting do to our muscles? According to this article from Men’s Health, it comes down to fascia, which is the tough connective tissue covering our muscles. The fascia tends to hold our muscles in the positions we put them in most often. Muscles that are contracted, or shortened, will want to stay that way, and same for muscles that are stretched.
Think of the position of your body when you’re sitting or even slumped forward at your desk. Your hips flexors are flexed (which keeps the 90 degree bend between your legs and torso), so they and your quads (front upper thighs) are slightly shortened. Your glutes (butt muscles), on the other hand, are elongated.
This can actually lead to what I unfortunately developed – gluteal amnesia – which basically means your glutes forget how to fire. Through specific exercises and Bikram yoga I had to re-train my glutes to function properly. The glutes are our bodies’ largest muscle groups and extremely important for quickness and explosiveness and also for making sure our low backs and knees don’t take on extra force to compensate.
Similarly, holding our arms out in front of us to type on computers and rounding our shoulders shortens our chest muscles and weakens our upper backs. Add shoulder hunching into the mix and we’re looking at chronic shoulder and neck pain in addition to decreased performance on the court.
So sitting most of the time shortens and tightens some muscles and it elongates and weakens others. These imbalances place undue stress on our joints, leading to injury. Also, nearby muscles might try to compensate for the dysfunctional joint, thus creating more imbalances and potential injury.
Inactivity and body fat
Aside from keeping our muscles healthy and balanced, NEAT can also help us lose weight. This is important for tennis players since carrying around extra weight on the court puts more stress on our joints (and slows us down).
Dr. Marc Hamilton (at the time a professor at Pennington Biomedical Research Center at LSU) conducted a lot of the research that the Men’s Health article above is based on. Hamilton says in that article that we have an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase (LPL) that helps us burn fat. LPL has been shown in mice to decrease substantially with inactivity. A Hamilton quote from the article:
LPL’s main responsibility is to break down fat in the bloodstream to use as energy. If a mouse (or a man) doesn’t have this enzyme, or if the enzyme doesn’t work in their leg muscles, the fat is stored instead of burned as fuel.
Hamilton’s work says that NEAT is crucial for increasing the activity of LPL which helps us burn fat. Exercising for an hour and then sitting the rest of the day doesn’t do it.
Is NEAT Enough?
As busy adults, who often have little time to warm up before playing, we need mobile joints connecting strong, balanced muscles. Foam rolling, stretching and strengthening will all help correct muscle imbalances and increase joint mobility, but these activities also take time – time that amateur tennis players often struggle to find.
While I’m by no means saying that we shouldn’t be doing our best to incorporate off-court training into our routines (even at the expense of some on-court hours), my suggestion is to get out of our chairs as much as possible and spend the majority of our time actually using our muscles to keep them strong and limber and to prevent the problems that sitting too much creates. There simply isn’t enough time to exercise away all of the problems caused by a life spent sitting.
If we’re early in our desk-jockey careers and we’re smart, we can avoid problems in the first place, and seasoned veterans can prevent further damage. However if we already have postural problems it’s important to address them to make sure they are corrected. Otherwise a tennis injury could be just around the corner.
I highly recommend visiting a physiotherapist or trainer to help you assess your postural problems and come up with a plan to address them, or look around on the web to find plenty of information on mobility and how to improve it (Jeff Salzenstein’s Strength and Mobility course is a great option, and I love Bikram yoga for overall fitness improvements including mobility).
How to Get More NEAT
So how can we add more non-exercise activity into our lives? Like most things, it requires a few adjustments, but once new habits are formed it gets quite easy.
The biggest thing is avoiding sitting at a desk all day by investing in a stand-up station (many employers are willing to provide these now) or taking lots of movement breaks each day. Set a timer to alarm every 20 or 30 minutes to remind yourself to get up, stretch, or take a short walk (but not to the vending machine).
Other NEAT activities include the following.
- playing with your kids
- going for a walk with a friend instead of meeting for a coffee or drink (or bring those along!)
- foam rolling / stretching while watching TV
- walking around during phone calls
- taking the stairs instead of the elevator
- walking or biking to work, school or errands
- getting off one or two bus stops early or purposely parking further away from work
Also, an activity tracker like the Fitbit (something I used to write off as something a serious athlete would never need) can be extremely helpful for reminding you to get moving and for tracking your improvement in activity levels over time.
NEAT on the Tennis Court
Another way to get some more NEAT is to spend more time on the tennis court doing less. This is completely counter-intuitive for me. I like to be efficient on the court. I’d rather take a private lesson where I can hit twice as many balls in one hour than I could in a 2-hour semi-private lesson.
But thinking about it from a NEAT perspective, it might actually be wiser to take the 2-hour semi-private lesson or group clinic. I’ll spend more time moving around, on the tennis court, having fun and learning (by listening, watching others etc), while not exposing myself to the physical demands that a 2 or 3 hour private lesson might include.
This can apply to any of your tennis sessions. Instead of rallying for 2 hours with a friend, which would be physically exhausting and very repetitive from a movement standpoint, split these 2 hours up into lots of different activities so that you’re not tiring yourself out or overworking one particular muscle group. Take breaks to feed balls to each other or video each other for technique improvement. These types of things will allow you to stay on the court longer and get some fun NEAT time in as well.
If you spend the majority of your life sitting, the solution isn’t to try to fit in an extra hour here an there at the gym. You need to find ways to move more. Non-Exercise Activity Time is crucial for amateur athletes to stay healthy, fit and on the tennis court. Shift your perspective on exercise and training incorporate NEAT to benefit your game.