To reduce the harmful health effects of sitting, take a light 5-minute walk every half hour. That’s the main finding of a new study my colleagues and I published in the journal Medicine and science in sports and exercise.
We asked 11 healthy, middle-aged and older adults to sit in our lab for 8 hours — which amounts to a standard work day — over the course of five separate days. On one such day, participants sat for the entire 8 hours with only short breaks to use the bathroom.
On the other days we tested a number of different strategies to break someone’s sitting with light walking. For example, one day participants walked 1 minute every half hour. On another day, they walked for 5 minutes every hour.
Our goal was to walk as little as possible to offset the harmful health effects of sitting. Specifically, we measured changes in blood sugar and blood pressure, two major risk factors for heart disease.
We found that a 5-minute light walk every half hour was the only strategy that significantly lowered blood sugar levels compared to sitting all day. In particular, 5-minute walks every half hour reduced the blood sugar peak after eating by almost 60 percent.
That strategy also lowered blood pressure by four to five points compared to sitting all day. But shorter and less frequent walks also improved blood pressure. Even a light walk of just 1 minute per hour lowered blood pressure by five points.
In addition to physical health benefits, there were also mental health benefits to the walking breaks. During the study, we asked the participants to rate their mental state through a questionnaire. We found that compared to sitting all day, a light 5-minute walk every half hour reduced the feeling of fatigue, put the participants in a better mood and helped them feel more energetic.
We also found that walking even once an hour was enough to boost mood and reduce feelings of fatigue.
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Why it matters
People who sit for long hours are much more likely to develop chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, dementia and several cancers, than people who move all day. A sedentary lifestyle also puts people at a much higher risk of premature death. But daily exercise alone cannot reverse the harmful health effects of sitting.
Due to technological advancements, the amount of time adults in industrialized countries such as 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 migration to more remote working, people today are less inclined to go out. So 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 for how often and for how long you should move.
Our work offers a simple and affordable strategy: take a 5-minute light walk every half hour. If you have a job or lifestyle that requires you to sit for long periods of time, this one behavior change could reduce your health risks from sitting.
Our research also provides employers with clear guidance on how to promote a healthier workplace. While it may seem counterintuitive, taking regular walking breaks can actually help employees be more productive than working without stopping.
What is not yet known
Our research mainly focused on taking regular, light-intensity walking breaks. Some walking strategies — for example, a 1-minute light walk every hour — didn’t lower blood sugar. We don’t know if running more rigorously at these doses would have produced any health benefits.
We are currently testing more than 25 different strategies to offset the health damage of 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 similar results can provide the public with different options and ultimately allow people to choose the strategy that best suits them and their lifestyle.
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.