A simple hack could help you avoid the negative health implications of sitting down all day, according to a study
Human beings are not suited to sitting on their bums all day. Running through forests, yes. Climbing trees, yes. Sitting in front of computer screens, definitely not. Yet billions of us do it at least five days a week, dictated as we are by western work patterns.
The health implications are considerable. Studies suggest that people who sit down for prolonged periods are at greater risk of developing chronic conditions such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Even daily bursts of exercise, while welcome, are not necessarily a panacea for long spells at the desk.
Research on the subject is patchy, with the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) acknowledging that there is “not enough evidence to set a time limit on how much time people should sit each day”.
Aiming to address this research gap are academics at Columbia University in the US. Led by Keith Diaz, associate professor of behavioural medicine, they sought to find out how to mitigate the risks of sitting down all day without having to do anything drastic like quit your job.
There’s was, admittedly, a small study. Only 11 adults took part. Each were required to sit in a lab for eight hours – representing a typical workday – over the course of five days. On one of those days, participants sat all day, getting up only for loo breaks. On the others, Diaz and his team tested a number of different walking strategies to break up the sitting.
“Our goal was to find the least amount of walking one could do to offset the harmful health effects of sitting,” Diaz wrote in a blog post for The Conversation. “In particular, we measured changes in blood sugar levels and blood pressure, two important risk factors for heart disease.”
According to their findings, a five-minute light walk every half-hour was the only strategy that significantly reduced blood sugar levels, reducing the blood sugar spike after eating by almost 60 per cent compared to sitting down.
During the study, researchers also asked participants to rate their mental state by using a questionnaire.
“We found that compared with sitting all day, a five-minute light walk every half-hour reduced feelings of fatigue, put participants in a better mood and helped them feel more energised,” he wrote. “We also found that even walks just once every hour were enough to boost mood and reduce feelings of fatigue.”
Our goal was to find the least amount of walking one could do to offset the harmful health effects of sitting
More research is needed, but the results chime with advice from the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive, which recommends “short breaks often, rather than longer ones less often”. It suggests five to 10 minutes every hour.
Diaz and his colleagues are now testing other strategies for offsetting the health harms of prolonged sitting, aimed at people who can’t just get out their seats, like cabbies.
“Finding alternative strategies that yield comparable results can provide the public with several different options, and ultimately allow people to pick the strategy that works best for them and their lifestyle,” said Diaz.
Main image: Christin Hume