Half Hour of Exercise Counteracts a Day of Sitting

Research finds even small amounts of exercise can dramatically improve your health
By Julia Ries, Healthline
May 2, 2019 Updated: May 2, 2019

A good many Americans spend a large portion of their days tethered to a desk or affixed to some form of furniture. This type of sedentary lifestyle takes a serious toll on your health and can even lead to an early death, research shows.

However, just because you spend most days glued to a chair doesn’t mean you’re doomed.

Just 30 minutes of physical activity can counteract a day of sitting, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Physical Activity Linked to Longer Life

Researchers from Columbia University Irving Medical Center evaluated 7,999 healthy adults, ages 45 and older, who had previously participated in a separate study that required them to wear activity monitors for at least four days between 2009 and 2013.

The research team used the data from the monitors—which recorded the amount and intensity of physical activity they did—and, over the course of five years, tracked the mortalities and health risks the participants experienced.

The study found that substituting 30 minutes of sitting with light physical activity could lower your risks of an early death by about 17 percent.

Replace that sedentary time with more moderate to vigorous exercise, like running and biking, and you’ll cut the risk of early mortality by 35 percent. Even short 1- to 2-minute bursts of movement was linked to valuable long-term health benefits.

“If you have a job or lifestyle that involves a lot of sitting, you can lower your risk of early death by moving more often—for as long as you want and as your ability allows—whether that means taking an hour-long high-intensity spin class or choosing lower-intensity activities, like walking,” lead author of the study Dr. Keith Diaz, an assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, said in a press release.

Prolonged Sitting Dangerous to Your Health

One in four U.S. adults sits for more than eight hours a day, the CDC states. Furthermore, about 40 percent of adults don’t bother with physical activity, according to previous research.

Together, both behaviors can be deadly.

In fact, a sedentary lifestyle has been linked to multiple dangerous health risks.

“Sitting for long periods of times—like six to eight hours a day—has increased risk of developing truncal obesity, hypertension, higher blood sugar, [and] higher cholesterol levels leading to metabolic syndrome, which then has increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and death from those events,” Dr. Sanjiv Patel, a cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, told Healthline.

That’s because when we sit for an extended period of time, our metabolic system essentially goes to sleep.

We expend less energy, which leads to a build-up of energy in the form of fat, said Patel. This can trigger an increase in stress hormones, which leads to higher blood pressure and blood sugar—both of which can increase our risk for chronic diseases.

On top of all of that, when we’re sedentary for hours, our blood isn’t pumping as steadily throughout the entire body. This can cause our legs to swell and develop both varicose veins and blood clots.

Here’s How Much You Should Move

The body was designed to get up and move.

When we move, we increase our muscle strength and cardiovascular health all while cutting down our chances of developing many diseases, such as cancer and diabetes.

Movement can also improve our overall mood, decrease stress levels, and, ultimately, prolong our lifespan.

“The key message here is that individuals must get up and get moving at least once an hour in an eight-hour day to reverse the effects of prolonged sitting,” said Dr. Ricardo Cook, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics.

“And, as the study points out, even minimal activity is much more beneficial than doing nothing,” he added.

Here’s the good news: You don’t need a fancy gym membership to reap the benefits.

If you have a desk job, simply make a point to get up every hour or so and spend a few minutes walking around or stretching, Cook advised. He also recommended engaging in light calisthenics every so often (think: squats, crunches, or push-ups).

That’s really all it takes to get your muscles moving and blood flowing. Not to mention, a quick trip away from your desk can improve concentration, relaxation, and focus, according to Cook.

Looking forward, the research team hopes to assess how sitting influences the risk of specific cardiovascular outcomes—such as heart attack, heart failure, and other cardiovascular-related deaths.

Then, we’ll have an even clearer look at how physical activity—of any intensity or duration—can have a profound impact on our overall health.

Julia Ries is a contributor to Healthline, which originally published this article.

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