As more and more adults have jobs that require them to be sitting at a desk most of the day, the phrase “sitting is the new smoking,” can feel quite haunting. According to the Mayo Clinic, sitting for long periods of time can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, increased blood pressure, cancer, and other health concerns.
However, a small study published January 12 in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, finds that taking a five minute walk for every 30 minutes of sitting can offset some of the worst effects of prolonged sitting. It builds on a growing body of research into the health benefits of shorter walks or bursts of activity throughout the day.
The study tested five different exercise “snacks,” or short bursts of activity: one minute of walking after every 30 minutes of sitting, one minute after 60 minutes; five minutes every 30; five minutes every 60; and no walking.
“If we hadn’t compared multiple options and varied the frequency and duration of the exercise, we would have only been able to provide people with our best guesses of the optimal routine,” said study co-author Keith Diaz, an associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, in a statement.
Each of the 11 adults who participated in the study sat in an ergonomic chair for eight hours in Diaz’s lab. The participants (all in their 40s, 50s, and 60s and most didn’t have hypertension or diabetes) could read, work on a laptop, and use their phones and were provided standardized meals.
They stood up only for their prescribed exercise snack of walking on the treadmill or for restroom breaks. The research team monitored that each participant din’t over or under exercise and measured blood pressure and blood sugar-two key indicators of cardiovascular health.
Five minutes of walking every 30 minutes was the only amount that significantly lowered both blood pressure and blood sugar levels in the participants. This regimen also affected how the participants’ bodies responded to large meals and reduced blood sugar spikes by 58 percent compared with sitting for eight hours.
One minute walking breaks every 30 minutes also provided some modest benefits to blood sugar levels throughout the day, but walking for either one minute or five minutes after 60 minutes of sitting didn’t appear to provide any benefits to blood sugar.
As far as blood pressure levels, all amounts of walking reduced blood pressure by 4 to 5 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) compared with sitting all day. “This is a sizeable decrease, comparable to the reduction you would expect from exercising daily for six months,” said Diaz.
Levels of mood, fatigue, and cognitive performance was also measured during the testing. Every regimen except for walking one minute every hour led to decreases in fatigue and boots in moods. Cognition wasn’t influenced by any of the walking regimens.
“The effects on mood and fatigue are important,” said Diaz. “People tend to repeat behaviors that make them feel good and that are enjoyable.”
The team is now testing 25 different doses of walking and exercise “snacks” and testing a wider variety of people.
“What we know now is that for optimal health, you need to move regularly at work, in addition to a daily exercise routine,” said Diaz. “While that may sound impractical, our findings show that even small amounts of walking spread through the work day can significantly lower your risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses.”
You don’t even need to get a standing desk (which aren’t necessarily better) to help prevent some of the negative effects of sitting all day. Some tips on how to increase your movement during the work day include holding walking meetings with co-workers, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, setting reminders in your phone or watch to get up and move, and listening to music while walking to stay motivated and entertained. You can also try box squats, where you get up and down in your chair gently, or do some push ups and planks.