Sitting too much is bad for your health, but offsetting the impact is easy, research shows

The scientific community has known for decades that sitting can increase the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. New study says reducing risk is easy. (Mac Duong Vu, Alamy)

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ATLANTA — Sure, you’ve heard about the dangers of sitting all day, but there’s not much you can do about it with most jobs, right?

Not according to a new study, which looked at the effects of prolonged sitting.

Walking lightly for five minutes every half hour may reduce some of the increased risk associated with prolonged sitting, according to the study published Thursday in the Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.

The scientific community has known for decades that sitting can increase the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, said Keith Diaz, the study’s lead author and assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. But until now there were no clear guidelines on how long you should sit and how often you should move.

“We’ve known for probably about a decade now that sitting increases the risk of most chronic diseases and the risk of premature death,” says Diaz, who is also director of the Exercise Test Laboratory at the university’s Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health. “Like how much fruit and vegetables they should eat and how much exercise they should do, we need to give (people) specific guidelines on how to combat the harm of sitting.”

The walk can be as light as 1.9 miles per hour, which is slower than most people normally walk, Diaz said. The goal is to simply interrupt sitting with some movement.

For this study, different health markers were measured for different combinations of periods of sitting and walking. While the sample size was small, the study was rigorous with a strong methodology, said Matthew Buman, director of the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University. Buman was not involved in the investigation,

Scientists aren’t quite sure yet why sitting is so bad, but the working theory is that muscles are important in regulating things like blood sugar and cholesterol levels. But when you sit for too long, your muscles don’t get a chance to contract and function optimally, Diaz said.

Does five minutes every half hour still seem like a lot? Even small “activity snacks,” such as walking for a minute every hour, were found to lower blood pressure in study participants by a “significant amount,” Diaz said.

And all of the study participants were generally healthy adults, meaning those with chronic conditions could see an even greater benefit, Buman said.

Why your boss should give it the green light

Even with clearer guidelines, regular relocation can still seem out of reach if the office culture doesn’t encourage it.

“There are so many of us who lead inactive or sedentary lifestyles or have sedentary jobs,” Diaz said. “There are social norms where people think you’re not working if you’re sitting at your desk.”

Diaz has worked to convince employers of the importance of exercise during the workday – not only for individual health, but also for the bottom line.

“Sitting is an occupational hazard and a healthy worker is a more productive worker,” he said.

Sitting is an occupational hazard and a healthy worker is a more productive worker.

–Keith Diaz, lead author of the study

The team found that there were more than just physical health benefits for participants who interrupted their sitting. They also found that it reduced fatigue and improved mood, Diaz said.

“Just sitting at your desk and working for 8 hours may not be great if you’re just concerned about your work productivity,” he added.

And while standing desks are popular, they may not be the answer.

“I’m not sure there’s really solid scientific evidence that standing is really better than sitting,” Diaz said. “I worry that people have a false sense that they’re healthy because they’re using this desk, and maybe they’re actually not that much better.”

How to move more at work

What Diaz really wants people to take away from the research is that getting enough exercise is achievable.

Moving doesn’t have to mean leaving your desk if that doesn’t fit your work culture, said CNN fitness contributor Dana Santas, a mind-body coach for professional athletes.

The most recent research only looked at the effectiveness of walking, but Santas said there are other ways to regularly move your muscles.

“You can practice box squats simply by standing up and gently sitting back down, then jumping right back up and repeating that move over and over,” Santas said via email.

If you have the opportunity to get more space, Santas is happy to recommend a dance break.

“Since most songs average at least 3 minutes, you can dance away the negative impact of sitting too much. And as a bonus, dancing to your favorite tunes will also lift your mood!” she said.

For people with limited mobility or wheelchair users, there are still accessible ways to break sedentary times.

Everyone should stretch out and move hands in all directions, Santas said. And someone in a wheelchair can do stretches, side bends and twists from the chair, she added.

“Even if you can’t move your lower body and actually get up from a sitting position, active deep breathing that uses your diaphragm and moves your ribs is beneficial for your posture and overall health,” Santas said.

“The general message is to move in as many ways as you can according to your abilities,” said Buman.

The bar for movement doesn’t have to be high, Diaz added. “To the extent that you can interrupt your sitting with some sort of movement interruptions, you’re still going to get some benefit,” he said.

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