• Researchers say that sitting all day can increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease and early death.
  • They report that even 15 to 30 minutes of daily activity can help mitigate the risk from sitting for eight hours.
  • They add that increasing one’s level of activity can just mean taking more breaks, using stairs instead of an elevator, or walking to a colleague’s office more often.

You may not want to sit down for this.

A study published today in the journal JAMA Network Open reports that people who sit all day at work need to do an extra 15 to 30 minutes of exercise per day to offset the detrimental effects of all that inactivity.

In their findings, the researchers said “the serious risks associated with prolonged occupational sitting can be mitigated by incorporating regular breaks and engaging in additional physical activity.”

They called for systemic changes, such as gym membership benefits, more breaks, desks allowing employees to stand, and designated workplace areas for physical activity.

The cohort study looked at 481,688 individuals over a mean follow-up period of nearly 13 years.

Researchers reported that people who predominantly sat at work showed a higher risk of mortality from all causes (16%) and cardiovascular disease (34%) compared to those who usually didn’t sit, after adjusting for gender, age, education, smoking, drinking, and body mass index.

The study included participants in a health surveillance program in Taiwan who were followed up between 1996 and 2017. Data on occupational sitting, leisure time physical activity, lifestyle, and metabolic parameters were collected, with the data analysis performed in December 2020.

Three occupational sitting volumes (mostly sitting, alternating sitting and non-sitting, and mostly non-sitting) were analyzed.

Subjects alternating between sitting and non-sitting at work didn’t experience increased risk of all-cause mortality compared with individuals who mostly didn’t sit at work.

For people mostly sitting at work and engaging in low (15-29 minutes per day) or no (less than 15 minutes per day) activity, an increase in leisure time physical activity by 15 and 30 minutes per day, respectively, was associated with a reduction in mortality to a level similar to inactive individuals who mostly don’t sit at work.

The researchers pointed out that “as part of modern lifestyles, prolonged occupational sitting is considered normal and has not received due attention, even though its deleterious effect on health outcomes has been demonstrated.”

They compared the culture of sitting to something else that used to be considered normal in the workplace.

“Emphasizing the associated harms and suggesting workplace system changes may help society to denormalize this common behavior, similar to the process of denormalizing smoking,” the study authors wrote.

Dr, Kevin Huffman, a primary care physician and the medical director of Florida Injury Centers who was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today that said sitting at work often causes a sedentary overall lifestyle.

“It translates directly to grappling with numerous health problems such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes — a petrifying accumulation,” Huffman said. “Individuals subjecting themselves to prolonged seating durations are playing host to elevated risks – 14 percent for heart diseases and, alarmingly, at about 13 percent for cancer.”

Huffman said solutions for sedentary workplace environments can come “in subtle — yet impactful — adjustments to our daily schedules.”

“Such modifications may include standing while fielding phone calls. Alternatively, it could involve embracing brief strolls each hour. The sum of these efforts coalesces toward addressing what is ultimately a pervasive sedentary problem,” he said.

“Rather than shooting your colleague an email from the confines of your next-door office, take a brief walk and engage them in conversation. This small amendment can significantly decrease total sitting time when accumulated,” Huffman added. “The American Journal of Preventive Medicine has conducted studies emphasizing that swapping just 30 minutes of sedentary behavior with simple physical activity – something as effortless walking for instance – boosts health substantially.”

Huffman said the key is consistency, whether the added exercise is inside or outside the confines of an office.

“Engaging in simple activities such as brisk walking, cycling – or even dancing can be utterly efficacious. However, the underlying key lies within consistency,” he said. “In particular, if one successfully sustains an integration of 15 to 30 minutes’ worth of moderate-to-vigorous activity into their daily routine, inevitably they witness a significant reduction in potential risks related to chronic diseases.”

Dr. Cheng-Han Chen, an interventional cardiologist and medical director of the Structural Heart Program at MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center in California, said the study showed a relatively easy way to improve the health of many people.

“These findings further demonstrate the health benefits of physical activity and highlight the opportunities available to improve the health of a large portion of our population,” Chen, who was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today.

“While someone may have a job in which little physical activity is involved, there are ways to incorporate even short periods of exercise into their day,” Chen said. “A few ways to be more active during work are to take short 5-minute breaks throughout the day to walk around the office, take the stairs instead of the elevator, and to park slightly further from the building entrance to walk a little more. A few simple steps can make a huge difference.”

Dr. David Cutler, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California who also was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today that in an age driven by science and data, sometimes simple logic and common sense are best.

“Such is certainly the case with masking to prevent respiratory infection, washing hands to prevent illness, or even the notion that being active is preferable to being sedentary,” Cutler said. “Now we have a study which actually proves that engaging in physical activity and doing less sitting at work actually reduces risk of death. This required a very long study – more than 12 years – of a lot of people, almost half a million, but yielded a significant result of both increased cardiovascular deaths and all-cause mortality in those who mostly sat at work and did not engage in leisure-time physical activity.”

Cutler added that the study has its flaws: self-reported levels of activity and a sample population able to pay for its own health examinations, plus possible errors in time calculations.

“However, the consistency of the findings at many levels of activity, the extensive nature of the questionnaires, and the persistence of the findings over the entire study period from 1996 through 2017, lends great credibility to the conclusion that being active prolongs your life,” he said.

“The important take home message is that engaging in physical activity, whether it be during breaks at work or free time at home, can reduce the risk of dying prematurely,” he added.

Dan Gallagher, a registered dietitian with Aegle Nutrition who was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today that even though 15 to 30 minutes of adjusted activity can seem like a dramatic lifestyle change, it doesn’t have to feel that way.

“At first glance, knowing that you need to work out an extra 15 to 30 minutes each day if you spend all day sitting can feel like a lot. However, you can easily break this up into shorter bouts of exercise throughout the day,” Gallagher said.

Gallagher added that exercise breaks will benefit not only your cardiovascular health but your brain as well.

“Not only does this help break your day up and get you to be more active, but giving yourself shorter breaks to move throughout the day will help your brain and concentration as well,” he said.

“Schedule 5 to 10-minute walks every hour, or two hours, in your day. You can easily get at least an extra half-hour of movement that way without throwing a huge wrench into your schedule each day,” Gallagher added.

Human bodies aren’t supposed to sit in an office chair for hours at a time, so the extra movement just makes sense, he said.

“Our bodies were designed to move, so moving throughout the day will help you feel your best,” Gallagher said.

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