Activity breaks during work day may improve overall health

by Jacob Fuller

Lauren Dempsey, MS in Biomedicine and Law, RN, FISM News 

Sitting for too long is associated with an increased risk for health issues, however, recent research shows breaking up prolonged sitting with brief periods of physical activities can improve overall health and mitigate some of the harms of a sedentary lifestyle.

A new study, which was published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, found that blood pressure and blood sugar levels were lower in individuals who walked for five minutes every half hour when compared to those who sat continuously. The researchers also found that walking for one minute every hour helped with blood pressure, but not blood sugar.

Researchers evaluated how frequently breaking up sedentary periods could reduce cardiometabolic risk factors by assigning volunteers to four different strategies: one minute of walking after every 30 minutes of sitting, one minute after 60 minutes of sitting, five minutes after 30 minutes of sitting, and five minutes after 60 minutes of sitting. The results of these interventions were compared to those that sat with no activity breaks.

The study involved 11 adult volunteers that were seated in an ergonomic chair for eight hours, getting up only for a bathroom break and whatever activity break they’d been told to perform. The volunteers performed each strategy one at a time and during an eight-hour period where they only got up to use the bathroom.

The researchers measured blood pressure and blood sugar during each phase of the study, finding that five minutes of walking for every 30 minutes of sitting yielded the best results. This strategy also had a significantly reduced blood glucose levels after meals, indicating that “higher frequency and longer duration breaks (every 30 min for 5 min) should be considered when targeting glycemic responses.”

Breaking up prolonged periods of sitting by walking periodically resulted in reducing blood pressure and every type of activity except for walking one minute every hour, improved fatigue and mood.

The study’s lead author, Keith Diaz, an associate professor of behavioral medicine at the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons said, “If you have a job that requires you to sit most of the day or have a largely sedentary lifestyle, this is one strategy that could improve your health and offset the health harms from sitting.”

While it is unclear why being inactive for long periods of time is harmful, research is beginning to show that it may have to do with our muscles. Diaz explained that “Muscles serve as important regulators of blood sugar levels.” When muscles are relaxed they pull less glucose from the bloodstream. Diaz added that “When you regularly activate the muscles in the legs, it helps restore regular blood flow,” which is important for circulation. Sitting for too long can increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, deep-vein thrombosis, and metabolic disorders.

Increasing physical activity can also have a psychological impact. A growing body of research is finding that while a sedentary lifestyle correlates to poor physical health outcomes, it also comes with increased stress, depression, anxiety, and overall mental health. It can also increase your risk of premature death.

While increasing physical activity during the workday may be challenging, experts do have a few suggestions. In addition to getting up and walking around every hour, it is recommended to stand while talking on the phone, take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk to a colleague’s desk instead of sending an email, and use your lunch break to take a walk around the building.

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