A Five-Minute Fix for the Hazards of Prolonged Sitting

Woman Sitting Down Back Pain

Prolonged sitting has been linked to a number of negative health consequences. Sitting for long periods of time has been shown to increase the risk of several chronic conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Prolonged sitting also leads to decreased circulation, which can result in the formation of blood clots and a higher risk of deep vein thrombosis. In addition, prolonged sitting can lead to a decrease in muscle activity, causing the muscles to weaken and increasing the risk of injury.

A prescription for prolonged sitting: A five-minute stroll every half hour.

Growing evidence highlights the dangers of prolonged sitting, a common aspect of modern life, even for individuals who engage in regular exercise. In light of these findings, medical professionals recommend that all adults reduce the amount of time spent sitting and increase physical activity.

But how often and for how long do we need to get up from our chairs?

Few studies have compared various options to determine the minimum level of physical activity required to offset the negative health effects of a sedentary workday, a question that many office workers are eager to have answered.

Now a study by Columbia University exercise physiologists has an answer: just five minutes of walking every half hour during periods of prolonged sitting can offset some of the most harmful effects.

The study, led by Keith Diaz, Ph.D., associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, was published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.

Unlike other studies that test one or two activity options, Diaz’s study tested five different exercise “snacks”: 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,” Diaz says.

Each of the 11 adults who participated in the study came to Diaz’s laboratory, where participants sat in an ergonomic chair for eight hours, rising only for their prescribed exercise snack of treadmill walking or a bathroom break. Researchers kept an eye on each participant to ensure they did not over- or under-exercise and periodically measured the participants’ blood pressure and blood sugar (key indicators of cardiovascular health). Participants were allowed to work on a laptop, read, and use their phones during the sessions and were provided standardized meals.

The optimal amount of movement, the researchers found, was five minutes of walking every 30 minutes. This was the only amount that significantly lowered both blood sugar and blood pressure. In addition, this walking regimen had a dramatic effect on how the participants responded to large meals, reducing blood sugar spikes by 58% compared with sitting all day.

Taking a walking break every 30 minutes for one minute also provided modest benefits for blood sugar levels throughout the day, while walking every 60 minutes (either for one minute or five minutes) provided no benefit.

All amounts of walking significantly reduced blood pressure by 4 to 5 mmHg compared with sitting all day. “This is a sizeable decrease, comparable to the reduction you would expect from exercising daily for six months,” says Diaz.

The researchers also periodically measured participants’ levels of mood, fatigue, and cognitive performance during the testing. All walking regimens, except walking one minute every hour, led to significant decreases in fatigue and significant improvements in mood. None of the walking regimens influenced cognition.

“The effects on mood and fatigue are important,” Diaz says. “People tend to repeat behaviors that make them feel good and that are enjoyable.”

The Columbia researchers are currently testing 25 different doses of walking on health outcomes and testing a wider variety of people: Participants in the current study were in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, and most did not have diabetes or high blood pressure.

“What we know now is that for optimal health, you need to move regularly at work, in addition to a daily exercise routine,” says Diaz. “While that may sound impractical, our findings show that even small amounts of walking spread through the workday can significantly lower your risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses.”

Reference: “Breaking Up Prolonged Sitting to Improve Cardiometabolic Risk: Dose-Response Analysis of a Randomized Cross-Over Trial” by Andrea T. Duran, Ciaran P. Friel, Maria A. Serafini, Ipek Ensari, Ying Kuen Cheung and Keith M. Diaz, 15 December 2022, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000003109

The study was funded by the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center of Columbia University.

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