5-minute walks can offset the adverse health effects of sitting the whole day

Sitting the whole day can be deadly. Researchers led by Deborah Young, who represents several international organisations on epidemiology and lifestyle and cardiometabolic health, state that sedentary behavior is associated with increased risk of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease and morbidity [1]. 

Young points out that apart from increasing all-cause mortality, sedentary lifestyles have also been shown to increase the risk of dementia, diabetes and death from heart disease. Many countries, including the US and the UK, have developed guidelines on physical activities to offset the effects of sedentary behavior. The World Health Organization recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity to vigorous exercises per week for all adults, regardless of age.  

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People who exercise but sit for long hours are at the most significant risk of dying early. As reported in the national cohort study led by Keith Diaz from Columbia University Medical Center [2], even individuals who exercised but sat for more than 12-13 hours the whole day are more than twice as likely to have premature deaths compared with individuals who sit less than 12 hours a day. 

The study by Diaz is a wake-up call for those who sit long hours working in front of the computer and sit on their couches when they reach home. However, a new study [3] found that walking or taking a stroll for at least 5 minutes every half hour could offset the risk of all-cause mortality due to a sedentary lifestyle. 

The new study [3], led by Andrea Duran from the Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health, Columbia University Medical Center, recruited 11 middle-aged and older adults using a randomized cross-over study. Participants completed different tasks for five days totalling 8 hours. On day 1, participants engaged in uninterrupted sedentary conditions or sat the whole day (control). Meanwhile, the experimental trials consisted of taking a break every 30 minutes for one minute on day 2. On day 3, participants took a 5-minute break from sitting down every 30 minutes. On day 4, participants took a one-minute break every 60 minutes. On day 5, participants took a 5-minute break every 60 minutes. 

Sedentary breaks consisted of light-intensity walking. Investigators of the study measured the participants’ blood pressure and glucose every 60 minutes and 15 minutes. 

Results of this small study revealed that compared with the control group, performing 5 minutes of light-intensity walking every 30 minutes yielded the most significant reduction in blood glucose levels. Although all doses of sedentary breaks produced substantial decreases in systolic blood pressure compared with the control, the most significant reductions were seen when participants had a 5-minute break every 30 minutes or a one-minute break every 60 minutes. 

Participants of the study walked on a treadmill to measure their walking space during the sedentary breaks. The participants walked only 1.9 miles per hour, which is considered leisure walking. 

Five-minute walks can offset the adverse health effects of sitting the whole day

The study provides critical information regarding the most effective amount of light walking needed to reduce blood glucose levels. More frequent and prolonged breaks, such as taking a five-minute break every 30 minutes of sitting down, are necessary when targeting glycemic responses. However, when aiming to lower blood pressure levels, a one-minute break every 60 minutes may be sufficient to offset the effects of sedentary behavior on blood pressure. 

Interestingly, participants who walked for five minutes every 30 minutes saw their blood sugar spikes following a meal reduced by approximately 60%. Although exercise is well established to be effective in lowering blood sugar levels or controlling blood glucose levels, investigators of the study noted that short bouts but frequent movements could be effective in reducing blood sugar levels. 

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The study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise showed that breaking down exercise or physical activity each day could be more favourable and doable. For instance, the World Health Organization recommends 150 minutes of moderate to virus physical activity to be broken down into shorter exercise segments or chunks each day. Adults can exercise or walk for at least 30 minutes every day for five days a week. Similar to the study’s findings, individuals may opt to engage in short exercises, such as 5 minutes walk, six times throughout the day to reach the 30 minutes target per day. 

Finding time to exercise may no longer be a challenge if people break the exercise regimen to short exercises throughout the day. Although the pace of walking in the study was only done leisurely, equating to moderate intensity for most individuals, the intensity can still be increased. Swinging one’s arms while walking or walking more briskly and adding stairs to the daily walks help increase the intensity of the walking exercise. 

One of the study’s authors cautioned that short bursts of exercise throughout the day might not lead to weight loss, but these can improve an individual’s metabolic profile. Improving one’s metabolic profile is a critical factor in promoting good health. 

While the study showed that short breaks every 30 minutes are necessary to combat the adverse effects of a sedentary lifestyle, another study [4] revealed that taking strolls after a meal can improve the control of blood sugar levels. 

The study [4], led by Loretta DiPietro and published in the Diabetes Care journal, showed that taking a stroll for 15 minutes after a meal had similar effects as sustained walking for 45 minutes in improving glycemic control. However, the 15-minute walk after a meal was more effective than the sustained 45 minutes walk in the morning or afternoon in lowering three-hour post-dinner glucose levels. 

Notably, the study’s participants by Loretta DiPietro were older adults at risk of impaired glucose tolerance. Walking after a meal for as short as 15 minutes is sufficient to help these older adults control their glucose levels. 

Postprandial hyperglycemia in older adults is linked with poor health outcomes. However, short bouts of walking after a meal may be one of the keys to helping this group regain blood glucose control. 

The mechanisms of how exercise is beneficial to the body are well understood. During exercise, the muscles require glucose as the fuel source. The body uses the GLUT4 transporter proteins during muscle contraction. The GLUT4 transporter proteins act by facilitating the transport of glucose into the muscle cells. Hence, physical activity can help clear the glucose in the bloodstream into the muscle where it is used and stored. Once glucose from the blood is removed through exercise, this will then lower blood sugar levels. 

Five-minute walks can offset the adverse health effects of sitting the whole day

DiPietro states that encouraging movement during working hours has clear benefits and can help retain workers over time. She clarified that “the human body was not designed to sit for eight hours at a time… what employers can do is provide options for people.” This would include promoting more flexibility during working hours and encouraging walking meetings. 

Apart from the physical benefits of walking or taking frequent breaks during working hours, taking short breaks can also improve mental health. Improving mood during working hours is related to better productivity and work efficiency. 

Take-away message 

People may often complain that they need more time to exercise during the day, primarily when they work in front of computers or are tied down to meetings the whole day. However, the studies cited have shown that you do not have to take sustained 45 minutes of exercise each day to reap the benefits of walking. Instead, breaking exercise into short bouts of as little as five minutes every 30 minutes could be the key to promoting better health. 

Taking leisure walks in a nearby park for five minutes could not only improve physical health by reducing blood glucose levels and blood pressure. These walks are also beneficial since walking in nature can boost mood and improve mental health and well-being. 

Workers do not only benefit from short bouts of exercise throughout the day. Older adults, especially those at risk of glucose intolerance, could similarly benefit from short daily walks. 

The recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week can be broken down into short minutes of exercise throughout the week. 

As demonstrated in the studies, the exercise regimen should not be strenuous but can be as simple as exercise. Interestingly, the results of these short bouts of exercise appear to be the same as those of the longer exercise duration. While the timing of the exercise suggests that performing the exercises intermittently throughout the day would be effective, taking a walk right after a meal is also recommended for reducing blood glucose levels. Hence, the next time you want to clear and control blood glucose levels in your body, take a short walk after a meal. 

It should be noted that the short bouts of exercise have not been linked to weight loss as none of the studies examined the effects of these quick exercises on weight loss. However, taking those short breaks would be critical if your goal is to achieve optimal blood glucose levels and normal-range blood pressure. Further, these fast but simple exercises would answer the risk of dying early due to sitting for long periods of the day. 

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Finally, longevity can be achieved for as little as a five-minute break every 30 minutes of sitting down, working in the office or sitting on a couch. 

[1] https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/CIR.0000000000000440 
[2] https://www.acpjournals.org/doi/10.7326/M17-0212 
[3] https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Abstract/9900/Breaking_Up_Prolonged_Sitting_to_Improve.200.aspx 
[4] https://diabetesjournals.org/care/article/36/10/3262/30770/Three-15-min-Bouts-of-Moderate-Postmeal-Walking

The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.