10 Minutes of Intermittent Movement for Every Hour of Sitting May Counteract Ill Health Effects of Prolonged Sitting

September 19, 2014 Updated: September 19, 2014

In recent years, researchers have formed a strong consensus with regards to the health effects of sitting. In short, the more time you spend sitting, the shorter and less healthy your life will tend to be.

In fact, there are now over 10,000 studies showing that chronic sitting—at work, commuting, and watching TV at night—significantly impacts your cardiovascular and metabolic function.

For example, one 2012 meta-analysis found that those who sat for the longest periods of time on a daily basis were twice as likely to have diabetes or heart disease, compared to those who sat the least.

Another recent study found that women who sat for more than seven hours a day had a 47 percent higher risk of depression than women who sat for four hours or less per day.

Moreover, those who didn’t engage in ANY physical activity at all had a 99 percent higher risk of developing depression than women who exercised…

Tragically, more than half of American men, and 60 percent of American women, never engage in any vigorous physical activity lasting more than 10 minutes per week.

This combination of excessive sitting and inadequate exercise has been shown to double the risk of heart failure in men. It also raises your risk for insomnia, arthritis, and premature death from any cause.

Walk Off the Damage from Sitting…

What’s even more concerning is that studies also clearly show that these risk correlations hold true no matter how much you exercise. This was again demonstrated in a study published in August, in which six hours of uninterrupted sitting was found to counteract the positive health benefits of a whole hour of exercise!

Chronic sitting is actually an independent risk factor for poor health and early death, so the answer is to simply limit sitting as much as possible. Indeed, it’s becoming quite clear that intermittent movement is critical for health and longevity—perhaps even more so than a regular workout routine.

The good news is that you have virtually unlimited options when it comes to breaking up your sitting. From standing desks and office-friendly intermittent exercise to short walks; all of it counts.

One of the most recent studies  in this field found that taking a five-minute walk for every hour you spend in your chair can reduce the heart disease risks associated with chronic sitting.

Eleven healthy men aged 20-35 had their femoral artery function evaluated in two randomized trials. In the first trial, they sat for three hours without moving their legs.

In the second, they sat for three hours but walked on a treadmill for five minutes once every hour, at a mellow pace of two miles per hour. As reported by Science Daily:

“[D]uring a three-hour period, the flow-mediated dilation, or the expansion of the arteries as a result of increased blood flow, of the main artery in the legs was impaired by as much as 50 percent after just one hour.

The study participants who walked for five minutes each hour of sitting saw their arterial function stay the same — it did not drop throughout the three-hour period…

‘American adults sit for approximately eight hours a day,’ [lead author Saurabh Thosar] said. ‘The impairment in endothelial function is significant after just one hour of sitting. It is interesting to see that light physical activity can help in preventing this impairment.'”

Although benefits were shown after just a five minute walk in this study, Dr. James Levine, co-director of Obesity Solutions at Mayo Clinic in Phoenix and Arizona State University, recommends getting at least 10 minutes of movement for every hour you sit down.

Walking Is a Good Option Even for Those with Chronic Disease and the Elderly

While I believe high intensity exercises are an important part of a healthy lifestyle, there’s no doubt that more people need to incorporate more walking into their daily lives. This may be particularly true for the elderly, or people struggling with chronic disease that prevents them from engaging in more strenuous fitness regimens. For example:

    • A two-year long study published in the journal Respirology  showed that walking for two miles a day or more can cut your chances of hospitalization from a severe episode of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) by about half.
    • Another study published in the November 2013 issue of the journal Stroke found that daily walking reduced the risk of stroke in men over the age of 60.

Walking for at least an hour or two could cut a man’s stroke risk by as much as one-third, and it didn’t matter how brisk the pace was. Taking a three-hour long walk each day slashed the risk by two-thirds.

Quick and Easy Workplace Workouts

I recently interviewed Dr. James Levine who is the head of rehab at Mayo Clinic and he convinced me of the importance of merely walking around for 10 minutes every hour that you are sitting. Standup desks can also be very helpful. If that is not possible, then you can interrupt your sitting with the methods I review below. As discussed in my interview with Dr. Joan Vernikos, former director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division and author of Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, physical movements such as standing up or bending down increase the force of gravity on your body, and this is the key to counteracting the cellular degeneration that occurs when you’re sitting down.

A reasonable goal is to get out of your chair or couch every 15 minutes. The easiest strategy is to merely stand up and then sit back down. However, evidence suggests you’d be wise to go a little further—especially if you don’t exercise on a regular basis. There are plenty of ways to increase your movement at work, and I’ve included a whole series of basic to more advanced office-friendly exercises below. During work hours, it can be a challenge to remember to get out of your chair every quarter-hour, so an alarm can be quite helpful. A helpful tip would be to set a timer or use a timer on your cell phone.