It’s no secret that as a society we have become more and more sedentary over the past century. Wonderful advances in technology have steadily reduced our requirement to do things the old fashioned way–you know, like walk and carry stuff. I sit in front of a computer most of the day. More and more jobs require the same. This is part of the reason our collective waistlines are expanding. But there is another cost that not many people understand.
Independent of obesity, total time spent in sedentary behavior (anything that involves sitting) increases the risk for poor cardiometabolic health and also mortality. In other words, if you eat well, exercise regularly, and maintain a healthy weight, you still have an increased health risk if your job requires you to sit at a desk.
Researchers at the Brown Medical School recently completed a study designed to help people reduce their sedentary time. Participants used a smart phone equipped with accelerometer technology, which tracks all movement dynamically and allows for real-time monitoring of sedentary behavior. The phone then gave prompts to take a walking break after registering 30, 60, or 120 minutes of consecutive sedentary time depending on which condition participants were in (the breaks were 3, 6, and 12 minutes respectively; thus shorter interval = shorter walking break).
All conditions were effective at reducing overall sedentary time and increasing light and moderate activity over the course of a week, but the 30 and 60 minute conditions were better. One important side note was that the 30 minute condition, while overall the most effective, was met with the most dislike from participants. One interpretation of that could be that the breaks were too frequent and few participants in the 30-minute condition would have continued after 1 week, while another would be that what is effective isn’t always what we like.
Regardless, there are some clearly useful ideas you can take and implement in your daily life. You are most at risk if you have a lifestyle or a job that involves long periods of sitting. We know enough now that those periods should be broken up. Ironically, technology has a solution for the problem it has helped create. Commercial accelerometers (e.g., Fitbit) are lowering in price and can easily track things like daily steps, active minutes, and so on. Alternatively you can go low tech and simply program random prompts into your phone or calendar to go off to remind you to get up and take a five minute walk.
I don’t know about you, but I feel better, more alert, and more engaged after taking a brief stroll. All that time staring a screen and my mind starts turning to mush. Give the walking break prompts a try, you will scarcely find something easier to do to improve your health.
Dr. Jason Lillis is author of The Diet Trap: Feed Your Psychological Needs and End the Weight Loss Struggle available on Amazon and where all books are sold.