Sitting too much is bad for your health, but offsetting the impact is easy, according to a study

The scientific community has known for decades that sitting can increase the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer. A new study says that reducing risk is easy. (Mac Duong Vu, Alamy)

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ATLANTA—Sure, you’ve heard the dangers of sitting around all day, but with most jobs there’s not much you can do about it, right?

Not according to a new study, which looked at the impacts of prolonged sitting.

Five minutes of light walking every half hour may help alleviate some of the increased risk that comes 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 such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers, said Keith Diaz, lead author of the study and assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. But until now there have been no clear guidelines on how long you can sit and how often you should move.

“We’ve probably known for about a decade now that sitting increases your risk for 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 Behavioral Cardiovascular. University Health. “Just like how much fruit and vegetables they should eat and how much exercise they should get, we need to give (people) specific guidance 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 walk normally, Diaz said. The goal is simply to interrupt the session with some movement.

Different indicators of health were measured for different combinations of sitting and walking for this study. Although the sample size was small, the study was rigorous with strong methodology, said Matthew Buman, director of the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University. Buman was not involved in the study,

Scientists still don’t know exactly why sitting is so harmful, but the working theory is that muscles are important in regulating things like blood sugar and cholesterol levels. But when you sit too long, your muscles don’t get the opportunity to contract and function optimally, Diaz said.

Does five minutes every half hour still feel like a stretch? Even small “activity snacks” like a minute of walking every hour were shown to reduce blood pressure in study participants by a “considerable amount,” Diaz said.

And all of the study participants were generally healthy adults, meaning those with chronic conditions could see an even greater benefit, Buman said.

Why your boss should give the green light

Even with clearer guidelines, commuting on a regular basis can still seem unattainable if office culture doesn’t promote it.

“There are so many of us who lead inactive or seated-based lifestyles or have seated-based jobs,” said Diaz. “There are these social norms where if you’re off your desk, people think you’re not working.”

Diaz has worked to convince employers of the importance of commuting during the workday, not just for individual health, but for bottom line as well.

“Sitting 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 just physical health benefits for participants who stopped sitting. They also found it reduces fatigue and improves mood, Diaz said.

“Sitting at a desk and grinding for 8 hours actually might not be all that great if you’re just concerned about the productivity profits of your job,” he added.

And while standing desks are popular, they might not be the answer.

“I’m not sure there’s really solid scientific evidence that standing is really any better than sitting,” Diaz said. “I’m afraid people have this false feeling that they’re healthy because they’re using this desk, and maybe they’re actually not much better off.”

How to move more at work

What Diaz really wants people to take away from the research is that enough movement can be achieved.

Moving doesn’t have to mean leaving your desk if it’s not in the 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 said there are other ways to get your muscles moving on a regular basis.

“You can just practice box squats by gently standing up and sitting down, then jumping back up and doing that movement over and over,” Santa said over email.

If you have the opportunity to have more space, Santa Claus loves to recommend a dance break.

“Since most songs average at least 3 minutes long, you can dance against the negative impact of sitting too much. And, as a bonus, dancing to your favorite tunes will improve your mood, too!” she said.

For people with limited mobility or who use wheelchairs, there are still affordable ways to break up sedentary times.

Everyone should reach out and move their hands in all directions, said Santa Claus. And someone in a wheelchair can do stretches, sidebends and twisting exercises from the chair, he added.

“Even when you can’t move your lower body and actually get up from sitting, actively taking deep breaths that use your diaphragm and move your ribs, is beneficial for your posture and overall health,” Santas said.

“The general message is to move in as many ways as possible based on your ability,” Buman said.

The bar for movement doesn’t have to be high, Diaz added. “To the extent that you can interrupt your sitting with some type of movement interruption, you’ll still get some benefits,” he said.

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