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A 5-Minute Fix for People Who Sit All Day

A growing body of research tells us that sitting for too long is bad for our health. It has been linked to obesity, diabetes and cancer.

You may have heard this before and wondered what to do about it. Many people now spend a significant part of their day seated for work.

A new study from exercise physiologists at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons offers a specific answer: Every 30 minutes of sitting should be followed by five minutes of walking.

The study findings were published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, which is the journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.

Researchers tested different mini exercise routines, with the goal of determining the least amount of walking that would counteract the negative effects of prolonged sitting:

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

Each of 11 participants — who were all in their 40s, 50s or 60s — did each of the five routines in Columbia’s Exercise Testing Laboratory, sitting in an ergonomic chair for eight hours and getting up only at the prescribed times or to use the bathroom. They were allowed to work on a laptop, read or use their phone and were fed standardized meals during the eight-hour sessions.

During the study, the researchers monitored the participants’ glucose (blood sugar) every 15 minutes and their blood pressure every 60 minutes, as both factors are considered key indicators of cardiovascular health. The researchers also periodically monitored participants’ mood, fatigue and cognitive performance.

The findings included:

  • All four walking routines lowered blood pressure by 4 to 5 mmHg — which the researchers consider a “sizeable decrease” — compared with sitting all day.
  • Every walking routine except for one (one minute every hour) significantly reduced fatigue and improved mood.
  • The only routine that significantly lowered both blood sugar and blood pressure was five minutes of walking after 30 minutes of sitting.
  • The only routine that significantly lowered blood pressure spikes after meals — by 58% compared with sitting all day — was five minutes of walking after 30 minutes of sitting.
  • None of the walking routines affected cognitive performance.

Lead study author Keith Diaz, an associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia, said in a summary of the findings:

“What we know now is that for optimal health, you need to move regularly at work, in addition to a daily exercise routine. 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.”

Other recent research suggests walking enough each day can help prevent dementia.

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