Is walking enough? Science discovers how to negate the health risks of sitting all day
A short walk every half hour can help reverse the health damage associated with long periods of sitting, according to a new study.
Mounting evidence suggests that sitting for long periods – an inescapable reality for many workers – is hazardous to health, even for those who exercise regularly.
In the new study, volunteers who got up and walked for five minutes every half hour had lower blood sugar and blood pressure than those who sat all the time. According to the small study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers also found that walking one minute per hour helped with blood pressure, but not blood sugar.
“If you have a job that requires you to sit most of the day or have a largely sedentary lifestyle, this is a strategy that could improve your health and offset the health damage associated with sitting” said the study’s lead author, Keith Diaz, an associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.
It’s unclear why sitting for long periods without a break is bad for your health, but Diaz suspects that at least part of the explanation is that while we’re sitting we’re not using our leg muscles. .
“Muscles serve as important regulators of blood sugar,” he said. “If we don’t use them, things don’t work properly.”
When it comes to blood pressure, moving around helps improve circulation, Diaz said. “When you sit, blood pools in your legs,” he added. “When you regularly activate the leg muscles, it helps restore regular blood flow.”
‘Activity snacks’ every 30 minutes
To find the best way to combat the deleterious effects of sitting, Diaz and his team tested four different “activity snacks” on 11 volunteers: one minute of walking every 30 minutes while seated, one minute after 60 minutes in a seated position, five minutes after 30 minutes in a seated position and five minutes after 60 minutes in a seated position. The effects of each of these strategies were compared to those of sitting without a break.
Each of the 11 adult volunteers came to the researchers’ lab where they sat in an ergonomic chair for eight hours, getting up only for a restroom break and any activity snacks they were told to perform. All 11 followed each of the strategies, one at a time, along with an eight-hour period during which they only got up for bathroom breaks.
Blood pressure and blood sugar were measured during each phase of the study. The strategy that worked best was to walk five minutes for 30 minutes in a seated position. This strategy also had a dramatic effect on how the volunteers’ bodies responded to large meals, producing a 58% reduction in blood pressure spikes compared to sitting all day.
All walking strategies resulted in a significant 4-5 point reduction in blood pressure, compared to sitting still every eight hours. Each type of activity snack, with the exception of a one-minute walk every hour, also resulted in a significant decrease in fatigue and an improvement in mood.
The study proves walking helps, Diaz said, though he suspects some managers might frown at the thought of workers walking away from their desks.
“The next big big step for us is to change the workplace culture,” he said.
How to take a walk break at work
“You could walk to a colleague’s desk rather than send an email,” he suggested. “If you’re on the phone, you could walk. You can bring a small bottle of water to work, so you have to get up to fill it.”
Although the strategies suggested in the new study aren’t a substitute for regular exercise, they can help reduce the harms of prolonged sitting, said Dr. Ron Blankstein, preventive cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
“We know there’s a lot of harm in sitting still,” he said. “When you do it without a break, your blood pressure goes up and there are elevations in blood sugar.”
Do standing desks help?
While standing desks have become a big thing, Diaz doesn’t recommend them.
“The science on standing desks is still largely mixed,” he added. “And there is evidence that they could potentially be harmful to your back and the blood vessels in your legs.”
Blankstein noted that “being in the same position all day, whether standing or sitting, is not good.”
The results of the new study make sense, said Dr. Doris Chan, generalist and interventional cardiologist at NYU Langone Health.
“I’m really happy this came out,” she said. “This could be the start of something revolutionary. We just need bigger studies with more people. But it’s like a seed that has been planted. This opens the doors to all sorts of other research.
Getting up and walking every half hour could have other benefits, such as loosening joints that have stiffened after long periods of sitting, Chan said.
“I hope employers will take notice of this study and take to heart that they should allow their employees to take breaks to stretch and move,” she said. “It might even improve workflow.”
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