More time spent at home during the pandemic has increased the amount of time we spend sitting—and that isn’t good for our health. “Even one week of increased sedentary time can have negative physical and mental health effects,” says Jacob Meyer, PhD, assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University in Ames and a researcher who has been studying the pandemic’s effects on physical activity.
More than a dozen well-designed studies have found that sitting too much increases the risk for heart disease and other chronic conditions and is likely to impair your health and speed up death. Researchers from Harvard and leading European universities tracked more than 44,000 men and women for up to 14 years and found that those with the least amount of physical activity were four times as likely to die of any cause as those with moderate or high levels of movement.
The comparison of sitting and smoking as similar health risks isn’t a stretch, and we’re spending more time than ever on our butts. But it may be one of the easiest things to correct.
Sitting is an age-old habit
It isn’t as though humans just started sitting around a lot in recent times. But they used to do it differently, according to Daniel Lieberman, PhD, Harvard professor of evolutionary biology and author of Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding.
In addition to studying long-term biological history, Lieberman spent time observing people in Pemja, a remote area of Kenya where the locals still live much like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, untouched by modern conveniences. And he found that sitting there is viewed, and practiced, quite differently than in our technologically driven culture.
Like our ancestors, the residents of Pemja are forced to do a lot of physical labor just to survive. And they walk a lot—about 5 miles each day, which equates to around 10,000 steps. So sitting, for them, is a respite from the day’s physical activities.
Surprisingly, Lieberman found that the residents of Pemja spend about 10 hours sitting every day, but they don’t do it on chairs or sofas. Without that cushy support, they use many muscles to support their bodies in a sitting position, and they often get up and move around—there are no screens to occupy their attention. Bottom line, they don’t sit motionless for long periods of time without using their muscles.
Since most of us aren’t required to do extensive physical labor or walk significant distances in a typical day, it takes some conscious effort to be active. But the Pemja study and others show that we don’t have to view exercise as a major event on our daily calendar. Health-wise, it makes sense to simply integrate more movement into our daily routines to break up long periods of sitting.
One study, for the American Council on Exercise, was designed to determine how much activity it takes, and how often you need a break from sitting, to produce health benefits. The results: It doesn’t take much if you stand up and move often enough.
The study group of 13 middle-aged men and women who typically spent six hours per day on their butts didn’t engage in structured exercise. Rather, their sitting breaks consisted of short walks or household chores such as washing dishes, folding laundry, or even talking on the phone while standing or walking.
After eight weeks of taking these types of breaks from sitting, for five minutes every hour, participants experienced the following health benefits:
- HDL (“good”) cholesterol increased by 21 percent
- Triglycerides dropped by 24 percent
- Blood glucose dropped by 8 percent
Taking a 10-minute break every two hours produced almost as much benefit.
Develop more fitness habits
Exercise snacks are a start, but research has also found that if you sit for 8–10 hours per day, it takes 30–40 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise daily to counteract the negative health effects.
Luckily, more structured exercise can also be broken down into shorter bouts. For aerobic exercise, simple, low-tech movements such as jumping jacks or running in place can be effective. And for strength and balance, resistance exercises using your own body weight, yoga, or routines you find online will all work.
The real takeaway is that the more you sit, the more you need to get up and move to recover. And almost any type of movement can be at least somewhat beneficial. It really is that simple.
Why exercise outdoors?
Doing any type of exercise outdoors delivers bonus benefits. Compared to exercise indoors, doing the same activity outdoors made people feel happier and less lonely during the pandemic. This was the conclusion of an Austrian study performed while stay-at-home orders were strictly enforced in that country. On the flip-side, the study found that more screen time led to less happiness.
Make walking or running more interesting
Tracking your progress on a smartphone can be motivating. Although phones typically have apps to track steps and distance, additional information can make things more interesting.
As well as tracking any type of workout, the MapMyWalk app can record your routes and makes it easy to share routes and experiences. The app works with smartwatches as well as phones. For more information, visit mapmywalk.com.