Sitting All Day is Terrible For You!
Many adults spend the majority of their workday sitting down, and health experts are concerned about the harmful effects of sedentary jobs. However, a new study from Columbia University says taking a five-minute walk every 30 minutes will help ward off the harmful effects of sitting.
There was a time when physically active jobs made up the majority of the U.S. workforce. Now, some studies show that physically active jobs have taken a back seat to sedentary jobs, such as accounting, transportation, and technology-related professions.
The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that over 80 percent of all U.S. jobs are predominantly sedentary. And sitting for most of the day places workers at risk for heart disease, diabetes, dementia, several types of cancer, and an early death. What’s more, one study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in January 2015 reported that the harmful effects of prolonged sitting time are more pronounced among those who do little or no exercise than among those who exercise regularly.
“Health isn’t just what we eat and how physically active we are,” Yvonne Michael, professor of epidemiology at Drexel University’s School of Public Health in Philadelphia, told the AHA. “It’s also what’s happening at work that may allow us either to be more healthy or keep us from being healthy.”
The Columbia University research team set out to answer the question of what is the least amount of activity needed to counteract the health impact of a workday filled with sitting. Rather than follow other studies in comparing only one or two activity options to determine the answer, the Columbia team compared five options.
“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,” Keith Diaz said in a statement about the study, published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in January 2023.
The study was led by Diaz, an associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, and conducted in his laboratory. The 11 adult participants sat in an ergonomic chair for eight hours and were allowed to work on a laptop, read, and use their phones during the sessions. They were given standardized meals and only got up for what researchers referred to as an exercise “snack,” which consisted of treadmill walking or a bathroom break.
The study tested five different activity “snack” options:
1. One minute of walking after every 30 minutes of sitting
2. One minute of walking after every 60 minutes of sitting
3. Five minutes of walking after every 30 minutes of sitting
4. Five minutes of walking after every 60 minutes of sitting
5. No walking.
During the sessions, researchers watched each participant to make sure they did not over- or under-exercise. They also checked the participants’ blood pressure and blood sugar, which are important indicators of cardiovascular health.
Investigators found the optimal amount of movement was five minutes of walking every half hour. According to Diaz, the five-minute light walk option was the only activity that substantially reduced blood sugar levels and reduced blood sugar spike after eating by almost 60 percent.
Besides the physical health benefits, Diaz said there were also mental health benefits to the walking breaks. Participants said that walking:
• Reduced their feelings of fatigue.
• Put them in a better mood.
• Helped them feel more energized.
Diaz noted that the shorter and less frequent walk options improved blood pressure, too. What’s more, even just a one-minute light walk every hour reduced blood pressure by five points.
Regular Physical Activity Reduces Negative Effects of Sitting
Besides taking a light walk every 30 minutes, workers can reduce the harmful health effects of sitting by establishing a daily routine to stay physically active.
According to the current federal Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults need 150 minutes (2.5 hours) each week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, household chores, or raking the yard, for example; and 75 minutes (1.25 hours) each week of vigorous aerobic exercise, such as bicycling, swimming, jogging, or taking a strenuous fitness class.
In addition to keeping physically fit, Tyler Quinn, a research physiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, recommends workers with sedentary jobs follow other basic heart-healthy guidelines that include eating well and not smoking.
Quinn also says employers can help workers stay fit by providing:
• More breaks
• Different tasks for people with strenuous jobs
• More opportunities for desk-bound workers to get up and move around
• More ways to ease job stress and allow more control of the work environment.
Drexel University’s Michael agreed with Quinn about how employers can positively contribute to their employees’ health.
“We spend a lot of time at work, and workplaces have a lot of ability to shape their workers’ opportunities for good health,” Michael said.
As for Diaz, his work is not over. Diaz says he and his Columbia colleagues are currently testing over 25 different strategies for offsetting the health harms of prolonged sitting.
“Many adults have jobs, such as driving trucks or taxis, where they simply cannot walk every half-hour,” Diaz wrote in an article for The Conversation. “Finding alternative strategies that yield comparable results can provide the public with several different options and ultimately allow people to pick the best strategy for them and their lifestyle.”