How short walking intervals could combat the health impacts of prolonged sitting
Taking regular breaks can help to reduce blood pressure and blood sugar spikes after eating.
Increasing evidence suggests that sitting down too much can put our health at risk. According to the NHS, being inactive is linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, some forms of cancer and early death. Due to this, their advice is to “move more, sit less”. But how often should we be getting up from our chairs and for how long?
Now, researchers based at Columbia University, New York have an answer: taking a five-minute walking break every half an hour can offset some of the harmful effects of prolonged sitting.
The team had a group of 11 participants sit in ergonomic chairs for an eight-hour stretch, rising only for bathroom breaks or a prescribed period of walking on a treadmill. The periods tested were one minute of walking after every 30 minutes of sitting, one minute every 60 minutes, five minutes every 30 minutes, five minutes every 60 minutes and no walking at all.
The participants were allowed to use their phones or a laptop and read and were given regular meals. Their blood pressure and blood sugar were periodically measured throughout the study.
High blood pressure can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes, while blood sugar spikes can leave us feeling lethargic and irritable. Long-term blood sugar issues can also raise the risk of conditions such as kidney disease, heart disease and dementia.
The researchers found that any amount of walking reduced blood pressure by 4 to 5 mmHg compared to sitting all day – a significant increase as ideal blood pressure is usually considered to be between 90/60mmHg and 120/80mmHg.
Additionally, walking for five minutes every 30 minutes reduced blood sugar spikes after meals by more than 50 per cent. Walking for one minute every 30 minutes also led to a small reduction in blood sugar spikes but walking every 60 minutes, whether for one minute or five, had no effect.
“This is a sizeable decrease, comparable to the reduction you would expect from exercising daily for six months,” said study leader Keith Diaz, associate professor of behavioural medicine at Columbia University.
“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.”
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Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.
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