- Physical inactivity is often synonymous with modern life, with up to 85% of the world’s population leading a sedentary lifestyle.
- Sitting for too long, regardless of general physical activity, is a recognized health hazard associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure.
- New research has found that a 5-minute walking break after every 30 minutes of sitting may help regulate blood pressure and control blood sugar levels.
- The work highlights that short exercise “snacks” during the working day may also improve mood, fatigue, and well-being.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates around 2 million deaths each year are linked to physical inactivity. The institution has described a sedentary lifestyle as being among the 10 leading causes of death and disability in the world.
The number of people leading sedentary lifestyles is increasing due to a rise in occupational sedentary behaviors, such as office work, and increased use of electronic devices.
An estimated 60–85% of people in the world and nearly two-thirds of children lead sedentary lifestyles.
Researchers and health experts are committed to finding ways to mitigate the harmful effects of prolonged sitting.
A new study from Columbia University in New York suggests that regular bursts of short exercise “snacks” throughout the working day might be enough to counter the effects of a sedentary lifestyle.
Specifically, the researchers found that a 5-minute walk every 30 minutes could offset the effects of prolonged sitting.
The work was published on Jan. 12 in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.
Physical inactivity and health
A sedentary lifestyle has serious health implications, contributing to an increased risk of:
- cardiovascular disease
- high blood pressure (hypertension)
- hormone-related cancers
Studies have also shown people who lead a sedentary lifestyle are also at higher risk of developing mental health disorders. On the flipside, people who exercise tend to report better mental health.
Reducing sedentary behavior and increasing physical activity a matter of public health.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults aim to sit less throughout the day.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans state that adults should engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity every week combined with 2 days of strength training.
Yet regardless of how physically active you are, studies have shown that prolonged sitting can still increase your risk of serious health complications.
To help reduce those risks, researchers and health experts recommend getting up from your desk often and moving around.
Short bursts of exercise offset sedentary behaviors
For the Columbia University study, 11 participants visited a laboratory where they sat for 8-hour sessions.
They were allowed to work, read, and use their mobile phones. During the sedentary sessions, they followed one of five exercise “snacks” as prescribed by the researchers:
- 1 minute of walking after every 30 minutes of sitting
- 1 minute of walking after 60 minutes of sitting
- 5 minutes of walking after every 30 minutes of sitting
- 5 minutes of walking after every 60 minutes of sitting
- no walking
Each participant was also provided with standardized meals during the sessions. The researchers also monitored key health indicators at set intervals, including blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
Health effects of 5-minute walking breaks
The researchers found that participants’ blood sugar and blood pressure levels were reduced after 5 minutes of walking for every 30 minutes of sitting.
Lead study author Keith Diaz, Ph.D, associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia, told Medical News Today the most exciting part of the new research is that they’ve answered how best to prevent the detrimental health effects of sitting.
“Just like we have recommendations on how many fruits and vegetables we should eat each day and how much we should exercise — this is the most exciting part of this work. We finally have an answer. There are so many adults who have a job or lifestyle where they have to sit for prolonged periods. We can now provide them with guidance on this one behavior change to reduce their health risks from sitting.”
– Dr. Keith Diaz, Ph.D., lead study author
The research team also found that a 5-minute walk every half hour led to a 58% reduction in blood sugar spikes after eating.
Dr. Diaz explained the potential mechanism behind the biological effects on blood sugar:
“Muscles serve an important role in our health by helping to regulate blood sugar and cholesterol levels — but they need to be used and contracted to do this,” he said.
“When our muscles aren’t used after hours and hours of sitting, they don’t fully help out to regulate blood sugar and cholesterol levels. So we think that regular short walks or ‘activity snacks’ helps to activate the muscles to serve as better blood sugar and cholesterol regulators.”
Dr. Yu-Ming Ni, a noninvasive cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center, not involved in the study, explained to MNT that muscles are an important consumer of blood sugar.
“Physical activity improves blood sugar levels and can reduce the risk for diabetes,” Dr. Ni said. “Since diabetes is a major risk factor for heart attacks and strokes, any effort to prevent diabetes will ultimately lead to less risk of heart disease.”
The researchers also found that blood pressure monitoring showed that all exercise “snacks” resulted in up to a 5 mmHg drop in blood pressure reading when compared to no walking at all.
“The sitting posture creates bends and constrictions in the blood vessels of the legs,” Dr. Diaz said. “In other words, sitting puts a kink in your legs’ blood vessels. This ultimately changes blood flow and can lead to increases in blood pressure.”
Dr. Diaz concluded that “regular short walks can help prevent the changes in blood pressure by regularly restoring blood flow to the legs.”
Dr. Ni noted the benefits of better blood pressure control: “Over time, this puts less strain on the heart and can prevent the development of heart failure or a heart attack,” he said, noting there are long-term benefits of the study findings.
“Remember that small changes done over the years can have a lasting impact on health. It may not seem like much to walk for 5 minutes every hour of desk work, but this can add up over the work day. For example, an 8-hour workday amounts to 40 minutes of physical activity. Add in a 15 min walk during your lunch break, and you suddenly have almost an hour of additional physical activity each workday. With these small changes, anyone can make a difference in their health — one walking break at a time.”
– Dr. Yu-Ming Ni, cardiologist
Sitting less, moving more promotes well-being
The researchers noted a reduction in participant fatigue and improvement in mood in all of the walking interventions when compared to no walking at all.
When asked if the short exercise “snacks” could be used to promote well-being, Dr. Diaz said:
“Compared to sitting all day, a 5-minute light walk every half hour reduced feelings of fatigue and improved mood. So beyond improving your physical health, regular walks to break up your sitting will put you in a better mood and help you feel more energized.”
Dr. Diaz added that the next steps for the research include finding more ways to reduce the harmful effects of sitting.
“We hope to find the least amount of movement you have to do to prevent the health harms of sitting,” Dr. Diaz said. “The reality is that many adults will find it hard to walk every half hour. So finding a more feasible recommendation is still needed.”
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