The scientific community has known for decades that sitting can increase the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancers. A new study indicates that it is easy to reduce the risk. (Mac Duong Vu, Alamy)
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ATLANTA — Sure, you’ve heard of the dangers of sitting around all day, but with most jobs, there’s not much you can do about it, can you?
Not according to a new study, which looked at the impacts of prolonged sitting.
Five minutes of light walking every half hour may help mitigate some of the increased risk associated with sitting for long periods of the day, according to the study published Thursday in the Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.
The scientific community has known for decades that sitting can increase the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancers, said Keith Diaz, lead study author and assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia. University Medical Center. But until now, there were no clear guidelines on how long you can sit and how often you should move.
“We’ve known for probably a decade now that sitting increases your risk of most chronic diseases and increases your risk of premature death,” said Diaz, who is also director of the exercise testing laboratory at the Center for university behavioral cardiovascular health. “Just like how much fruit and veg they should be eating and how much exercise they should be getting, we need to give (people) specific advice on how to combat the harms of sitting.”
The walk can be as light as 1.9 miles per hour, which is slower than most people normally walk, Diaz said. The goal is simply to break up the session with a bit of movement.
Several health markers were measured for different combinations of sitting and walking periods for this study. Although the sample size was small, the study was rigorous with sound methodology, said Matthew Buman, director of the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University. Buman did not participate in the study,
Scientists don’t yet know exactly why sitting is so bad, but the working theory is that muscles are important for regulating things like blood sugar and cholesterol levels. But when you sit too long, your muscles don’t have a chance to contract and function optimally, Diaz said.
Does five minutes every half hour still seem like a stretch? Even small “activity snacks,” like a minute of walking every hour, have been shown to lower blood pressure in study participants by a “considerable amount,” Diaz said.
And all study participants were generally healthy adults, meaning those with chronic conditions may see an even greater benefit, Buman said.
Why Your Boss Should Give It The Green Light
Even with clearer guidelines, moving regularly can still seem out of reach if the office culture doesn’t encourage it.
“So many of us lead inactive or seated lives or have seated jobs,” Diaz said. “There are these social norms where if you’re standing outside your desk, people think you’re not working.”
Diaz has worked to convince employers of the importance of moving during the workday, not only for individual health, but also for the bottom line.
“Sitting down is an occupational hazard and a healthy employee is a more productive employee,” he said.
Sitting is an occupational hazard and a healthy employee is a more productive employee.
–Keith Diaz, lead author of the study
The team found that there were more than physical health benefits for participants who interrupted their session. They also found it reduced fatigue and improved mood, Diaz said.
“Just sitting at your desk and working for 8 hours might not be so great if you only care about your work productivity,” he added.
And while standing desks are popular, they may not be the answer.
“I’m not sure there’s solid scientific evidence that standing is really better than sitting,” Diaz said. “I’m afraid people get this false impression that they’re healthy because they’re using this office, and maybe they’re not really getting better.”
How to move more at work
What Diaz really wants people to take away from the research is that enough movement is possible.
Moving doesn’t have to mean leaving your office if it’s not part of your workplace culture, said Dana Santas, CNN fitness contributor, mind-body coach for professional athletes.
The most recent research has only looked at the effectiveness of walking, but Santa Claus said there are other ways to regularly move your muscles.
“You can simply practice box squats by gently standing up and sitting down, then standing up and repeating this move over and over again,” Santas said over email.
If you have the opportunity to have more space, Santa Claus loves to recommend a dance break.
“Since most songs are on average at least 3 minutes long, you can dance to the negative impact of too much sitting. And, as a bonus, dancing to your favorite tunes will also boost your mood!” she says.
For people with reduced mobility or in a wheelchair, there are still accessible ways to break up sedentary time.
Everyone should stretch and move their hands in all directions, said Santa Claus. And someone in a wheelchair can do stretches, side bends and twisting exercises from the chair, she added.
“Even when you can’t move your lower body and rise from a seated position, actively taking deep breaths that use your diaphragm and move your ribs benefits your posture and overall health,” Santas says.
“The general message is to move in whatever way you can according to your ability,” Buman said.
The move bar doesn’t need to be high, Diaz added. “As long as you can break up your session with some sort of movement breaks, you’re always going to bring benefits,” he said.
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