Further evidence suggests that prolonged sitting is bad for your health, even if you exercise regularly – and doctors advise walking every 30 minutes

We all know that walking is good for us, but just how bad is sitting down for too long? How often do we need to get up from our chairs and walk around? Doctors provide their advice.

Few studies have compared multiple options to determine the answer most office workers want: what is the minimum amount of activity required to counteract the detrimental impact on health after sitting down all day?

Spend five minutes walking every half hour during prolonged sitting periods

Columbia University exercise physiologists say that just five minutes of walking every half hour during periods of prolonged sitting can offset some of the most harmful effects.

The study, led by Keith Diaz, PhD, associate professor of behavioural medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, was published online in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.

Diaz’s study is set apart from previous studies because it tested five different exercise “snacks” instead of one or two activity options. By “snacks”, the authors mean:

  • One minute of walking after every 30 minutes of sitting
  • One minute after 60 minutes
  • Five minutes every 30
  • Five minutes every 60
  • No walking

“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,” Diaz explains.

How was the study conducted?

Each of the 11 adults who participated in the study came to Diaz’s laboratory, where participants sat in an ergonomic chair for eight hours, rising only for their prescribed exercise of treadmill walking or a bathroom break.

Researchers kept an eye on each participant to ensure they did not over- or under-exercise. They periodically measured the participants’ blood pressure and blood sugar (key indicators of cardiovascular health). Participants were allowed to work on a laptop, read, and use their phones during the sessions and were provided standardized meals.

It was found that the optimal amount of movement was five minutes of walking every 30 minutes

It was found that the optimal amount of movement was five minutes of walking every 30 minutes. This was the only amount that significantly lowered blood sugar and blood pressure. Furthermore, this walking regimen benefited how the participants interacted with food: reducing blood sugar spikes by 58% compared with sitting all day.

Taking a walking break every 30 minutes for one minute also provided modest benefits for blood sugar levels throughout the day, while walking every 60 minutes (either for one minute or five minutes) provided no benefit.

“This is a sizeable decrease, comparable to the reduction you would expect from exercising daily for six months,” says Diaz.

All amounts of walking significantly reduced blood pressure by 4 to 5 mmHg compared with sitting all day.

Does prolonged sitting affect mood?

The researchers also periodically measured participants’ levels of mood, fatigue, and cognitive performance during the testing. They discovered that all walking regimens, except walking one minute every hour, led to significant decreases in fatigue and significant improvements in mood. However, none of the walking regimens influenced cognition.

“People tend to repeat behaviors that make them feel good and that are enjoyable.”

“The effects on mood and fatigue are important,” Diaz comments. “People tend to repeat behaviors that make them feel good and that are enjoyable.”

The Columbia researchers are currently testing 25 different doses of walking on health outcomes and testing a wider variety of people: Participants in the current study were in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, and most did not have diabetes or high blood pressure.

“What we know now is that for optimal health, you need to move regularly at work, in addition to a daily exercise routine,” concludes Diaz. “While that may sound impractical, our findings show that even small amounts of walking spread through the work day can significantly lower your risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses.”


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