The research summary is a brief overview of interesting scholarly work.
The big idea
To reduce the harmful effects of sitting on health, take a light walk for five minutes every half hour. This is the main conclusion of a new study that my colleagues and I published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
We asked 11 healthy middle-aged and older adults to sit in our lab for eight hours – which is a standard work day – on five separate days. One of these days, the participants sat for the entire eight hours with only short breaks to go to the bathroom. On other days, we tested a number of different strategies for breaking a person’s sitting position with light walking. For example, one day the participants walked for one minute every half hour. Another day, they walked for five minutes every hour.
Our goal was to find as little walking as possible to offset the adverse health effects of sitting. In particular, we measured variations in blood sugar and blood pressure, two important factors heart disease risk factors.
We found that a five-minute light walk every half hour was the only strategy that significantly lowered blood sugar compared to sitting all day. In particular, five-minute walks every half hour reduced peak blood sugar levels after eating by almost 60%.
This strategy also reduced blood pressure by four to five points compared to sitting all day. But shorter, less frequent walks also improved blood pressure. Even a light walk for one minute every hour reduced blood pressure by five points.
In addition to the physical health benefits, walking breaks also had mental health benefits. During the study, we asked participants to rate their mental state using a questionnaire. We found that compared to sitting all day, a light walk for five minutes every half hour reduced feelings of fatigue, put participants in a better mood, and helped them feel more energized. We also found that even walking once an hour was enough to improve mood and reduce feelings of fatigue.
why is it important
People who sit for hours develop chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease, dementia and several types of cancer at much higher rates than people who commute throughout the day. A sedentary lifestyle also puts people at a much higher risk of early death. But the simple act of exercising daily cannot reverse the harmful effects of sitting on health.
Due to advances in technology, the time that adults in industrialized countries like the United States spend sitting has been steadily increasing for decades. Many adults now spend the majority of their day sitting. This problem has only gotten worse since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the migration to more remote work, people are less inclined to venture outside the home these days. It is therefore clear that strategies are needed to combat a growing public health problem in the 21st century.
Current guidelines recommend that adults should “sit less, move more.” But these recommendations don’t provide any specific advice or strategy on how often and how long to move.
Our work offers a simple and affordable strategy: Take a five-minute light walk every half hour. If you have a job or lifestyle where you have to sit for long periods of time, this change in behavior could reduce your health risks from sitting.
Our research also offers clear advice for employers on how to promote a healthier workplace. Although it may seem counterintuitive, taking regular walk breaks can actually help workers be more productive than working non-stop.
What is not yet known
Our study primarily focused on taking regular walking breaks at a light intensity. Some of the walking strategies – for example, light walks for one minute every hour – did not lower blood sugar. We don’t know if more rigorous walking would have provided any health benefits at these doses.
We are currently testing over 25 different strategies to offset the health harms of prolonged sitting. Many adults have jobs, such as driving trucks or taxis, where they simply cannot walk every half hour. Finding alternative strategies that yield comparable results can provide the public with several different options and ultimately allow people to choose the strategy that best suits them and their lifestyle.