For years now, the American Heart Association and other health organizations have been warning the public that sitting kills. Too much sedentary time increases the likelihood of heart disease, diabetes, and death. Sitting has been called the “new smoking,” per the Cleveland Clinic, and a “silent killer,” per research.
A large new study, based on health data from nearly half a million adults, adds to those warnings, after finding that individuals who predominantly sit at work had a 16 percent higher risk of mortality from all causes, and a 34 percent higher risk of death from heart disease compared with those who predominantly did not sit.
A little activity each day, however, may go a long way toward cutting that risk. The research, published in JAMA Network Open, suggests that constant sitters who engage in an additional 15 to 30 minutes of physical activity per day could lower their likelihood of dying to the same level as people who mostly do not sit at work.
“The serious risks associated with prolonged occupational sitting can be mitigated by incorporating regular breaks and engaging in additional physical activity,” wrote Chi-Pang Wen, MD, PhD, with the Institute of Population Health Science at the National Health Research Institute in Taiwan, and his study coauthors. “Systemic changes, such as more frequent breaks, standing desks, designated workplace areas for physical activity, and gym membership benefits, can help reduce risk.”
Short Amounts of Activity Can Provide Big Health Gains
For the study, Dr. Wen and his collaborators followed almost half a million adults aged 20 and older living in Taiwan. The researchers recorded about 26,000 deaths over an average follow-up period of nearly 13 years. A total of 15,045 (57 percent) of these deaths were among those who mostly sat at work. None had cardiovascular disease diagnoses at the beginning of the study.
According to questionnaire responses, participants were categorized in three groups describing their sitting status at work: mostly sitting, alternating sitting and nonsitting, and mostly nonsitting. Study subjects also provided information describing their levels of physical activity.
Researchers noted that individuals mostly sitting at work had significantly higher risks overall than those alternating sitting and nonsitting, and those mostly nonsitting. The risks among the alternating sit and nonsit group and the nonsitters were similar.
The study results indicate that those who predominantly sit at work and engage in low physical activity — ranging from less than 15 minutes to 29 minutes daily — significantly benefited by adding a bit more movement to their day. For this population, an additional 15 to 30 minutes of daily physical activity slashed their risk of dying to a level equal to those who predominantly do not sit at work.
The findings support previous research showing how short bouts of activity can make a major dent in the likelihood of dying early for those who are generally sedentary. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that each week adults ideally get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination.
Finding Simple Ways to Incorporate Exercise Into Your Daily Life
“The study really highlights that to be healthier, you have to first observe how much you are moving or not moving,” says Anand Rohatgi, MD, a preventive cardiologist and a professor of medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. “Then set some goals to do a little bit more with respect to standing, walking, moving, and more actual exercise.”
For Dr. Rohatgi, the research indicates that constant sitters may benefit from simple work breaks that don’t require regimented exercise sessions, such as making time to stand up at your desk or going for a 10-minute walk every few hours.
Jay Dawes, PhD, an associate professor of applied exercise science at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, urges people to find ways to sneak more activity into their day, such as taking the stairs, parking farther away from store and workplace entrances, and walking during phone meetings.
He adds that individuals should incorporate a balance of strength-building and stretching into their daily activities along with cardiovascular exercise. “Just having some base level of strength is really important,”says Dr. Dawes.
His overall takeaway from the study is that any activity can make a difference when it comes to improving health. “The key is to just do something,” he says.