There's a Simple Way to Offset the Health Risks of Sitting All Day

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To reduce the harmful health effects of sitting, take a brisk 5-minute walk every half hour. That’s the main finding of a new study that my colleagues and I published in the journal Medicine and science in sports and exercise.

We asked 11 healthy middle-aged and elderly adults to sit in our lab for 8 hours – representing a standard workday – over five separate days. On one of these days, participants sat for the entire 8 hours, with only short breaks to use the restroom.

On the other days, we tested several different strategies for breaking a person’s sitting posture with a light walk. For example, in one day, participants walked 1 minute every half hour. On another day, they walked for 5 minutes every hour.

Our goal was to find the least amount of walking possible to offset the detrimental health effects of sitting. In particular, we measured changes in blood sugar levels and blood pressure, two important risk factors for heart disease.

We found that a brisk 5-minute walk every half hour was the only strategy that substantially lowered blood sugar levels compared to sitting all day. In particular, 5-minute walks every half hour reduced the spike in blood sugar after eating by almost 60%.

This strategy also lowered blood pressure by four to five points compared to sitting all day. But shorter, less frequent walks also improved blood pressure. Even just a 1-minute brisk walk every hour lowered blood pressure by five points.

In addition to the physical health benefits, there have also been mental health benefits from walking breaks. During the study, we asked participants to rate their mental state using a questionnaire. We found that, compared to sitting all day, taking a brisk 5-minute walk every half hour reduced feelings of fatigue, improved participants’ mood, and helped them feel more energized.

We also found that even walking just once an hour was enough to improve mood and reduce feelings of fatigue.

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why does it matter

People who sit for hours on end develop chronic illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, dementia and several types of cancer at much higher rates than people who move throughout the day. A sedentary lifestyle also puts people at a much greater risk of premature death. But daily exercise alone may not reverse the ill health effects of sitting.

Due to technological advances, the amount of time adults in industrialized countries like the US spend sitting has been steadily increasing for decades. Many adults now spend most of their day sitting.

This problem has only gotten worse since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the move to more remote jobs, people are less willing to venture outside these days. Therefore, it is clear that strategies are needed to combat a growing public health problem in the 21st century.

Current guidelines recommend that adults “sit less, move more”. But these recommendations don’t provide specific advice or strategies about the frequency and duration of movements.

Our work offers a simple and accessible strategy: Take a brisk 5-minute walk every half hour. If you have a job or lifestyle where you have to sit for prolonged periods of time, this behavior change can reduce the health risks of sitting.

Our study also offers employers clear guidance on how to promote a healthier workplace. While it may seem counterintuitive, taking regular walking breaks can actually help workers be more productive than working non-stop.

What is not yet known

Our study focused primarily on taking regular breaks for light-intensity walking. Some of the walking strategies – for example, brisk 1-minute walks every hour – did not lower blood sugar levels. We don’t know if more rigorous walking would have any health benefits at these doses.

What is the next

We are currently testing over 25 different strategies to offset the health damage caused by prolonged sitting. Many adults have jobs, such as driving trucks or taxis, where they simply cannot walk every half hour.

Finding alternative strategies that produce comparable results can provide the public with a number of different options and ultimately allow people to choose the strategy that works best for them and their lifestyle.The conversation

Keith Diaz, Associate Professor of Behavioral Medicine, Columbia University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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