When Keith Diaz was a doctoral student at Temple University, he came across a headline in Runner’s World magazine that seemed too wild to be true. “[The] headline was [something] like ‘Sitting is the new smoking’ even if you exercise, even if you’re a runner,” he recounts to Inverse. How could that even be? Exercise did your body good in tremendous and long-lasting ways, so said decades of scientific research, Diaz thought. How could the simple act of parking your tuchus instantly negate all those health benefits like an UNO reverse card?
Turns out, sitting for too long, whether on your couch catching up on Westworld or working at a desk, is very bad for your health. Prolonged sitting for over six hours has been linked to a whole slew of metabolic disorders like diabetes and obesity, cardiovascular disease, and premature death. In older adults, sedentary behavior may thin out the part of the brain critical to memory formation, according to some studies.
Arguably, the only antidote is moving your body as much as possible. But, like with any medicine, there has to be a minimum or optimal dose and frequency, right? That’s a question Diaz, an associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, has been puzzling over for the last several years. And now, according to a paper published Thursday in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, he’s arrived at a sweet spot: Five minutes of walking for every half hour of sitting.
Science in action — In prior studies, Diaz and a group of researchers found that if you swapped out 30 minutes of sitting for 30 minutes of physical activity, individuals slashed their risk of death by 17 percent with light-intensity exercise or 34 percent with moderate-to-vigorous exercise.
Now, if the thought of immediately hitting the treadmill after every episode of Kaleidoscope doesn’t sound too appetizing, that’s where Diaz wanted to see if condensing physical activity into manageable, bite-sized “snacks” offered any immediate health benefits.
“We elected to focus on blood sugar and blood pressure, aside from the fact they’re easy to measure, [because] we wanted something that had clinical relevance, that would matter to doctors,” he says.
The researchers had 11 healthy, middle- and older-aged adults trek into their lab at Columbia University for eight hours a day, five days a week for several weeks, for five different trials. During each trial, volunteers tried one specific sitting and physical activity routine, whether a one-minute break every 30 or 60 minutes or a five-minute break every 30 or 60 minutes. During the breaks, the volunteers engaged in light-intensity walking on a treadmill. The volunteers were also provided breakfast, which was mostly cereal, and lunch, like vegetable lasagna and potato chips. Blood glucose levels were checked after 15-minute intervals, and blood pressure, a measure of cardiovascular health, every hour during each trial. (There was also a control trial with no physical activity, just eight hours of doing whatever the volunteers wanted while sitting in an ergonomic chair. Don’t worry, they also had bathroom breaks.)
Diaz and his colleagues found among all the different routines, five minutes of strolling after 30 minutes of sitting had the greatest impact on short-term health. Blood glucose levels after a large meal were down by 58 percent compared to the control trial (a one-minute walking break after 30 minutes also led to modest reductions).
Blood pressure was down by four to five millimeters of mercury (the standard measurement for blood pressure) for all walking break routines compared to the control. This effect, Diaz says, is a comparable reduction to what you would expect if you exercised daily for six months.
Why it’s a hack — Think of these micro-bursts of physical activity like taking a daily multivitamin or a much-needed medicine if you are on one. “We kind of see this as a medication. Just like taking your blood pressure medication, you should do this movement every day,” says Diaz.
They’re also a great way to fit in a mood booster, sprinkling in literal peps to your step throughout the day. “We also found mental health benefits,” says Diaz. “Compared to sitting all day, a five-minute light walk every half hour reduced feelings of fatigue and improved mood.”
Studies have shown that regular exercise can ease depression and anxiety, with your brain releasing feel-good endorphins and natural cannabis-like chemicals that can enhance your state of well-being, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can also help with cognition and reduce your risk for neurocognitive disorders like dementia, although improved cognition wasn’t something this study noticed with any of its short walking breaks.
But still, it’s the positive reinforcement of feeling good and more productive after a brisk walk or other physical activity that may soften the mild annoyance of getting up in the middle of writing an email and prompt folks to intrinsically continue the healthy habit, Emily Mailey, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Kansas State University, who was not involved in the study, tells Inverse.
“I think it’s helpful to have those numbers to just give people an idea of what we’re talking about or where the benefits works,” she says. “But the overall recommendation probably needs to be a bit more flexible… figuring out a way that works for you. But I do think highlighting some of the affective outcomes like fatigue is important because that’s what ends up providing the motivation to continue.”
How it affects longevity — While it’s reasonable to infer that daily walking breaks throughout your day will, down the road, lead to better health and longevity, Diaz says the focus of this study is really on short-term health.
“I think [in] the field of exercise historically, it overlooks the emphasis on the acute effects,” he says. “If you look at guidelines for diabetes management, they say that you should exercise preferably every day of the week, and that’s because of the acute effects of exercise and movement on your blood sugar levels.”
Regular light walking breaks are unlikely to jumpstart your cardiovascular fitness — and Diaz does not recommend a super intense workout like Zumba or kickboxing — but they should supplement your main course of exercise much like multivitamins supplement a healthy diet.
“You’re not going to expect the body to have large adaptations with this kind of light exercise activities,” he says.
It’s also important to bear in mind this study was in healthy, albeit older, individuals in a controlled lab setting. Individuals with chronic conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure may see an even greater benefit and maybe within one minute of walking or any other light physical activity versus five minutes after 30 minutes. (The optimal duration and frequency of walking breaks for people with pre-existing health conditions is a question Diaz and his colleagues are hoping to tackle next.)
“We know movement is beneficial, there’s no doubt about it,” says Diaz. “Whether it’s a treadmill desk or under-the-seat bike, if you can find a way of getting some movement in, I think that’s helpful. Our study only tested testing walking, but we don’t have any expectation that any form of aerobic activity would be different, that we’d have different results.”
Now then, dear reader, time for your five-minute stroll.
Hack score out of 10 — 🚶🏾♀️🚶🏽♂️🚶🏿🚶🏻♀️🚶🏼♂️🚶🏿♀️🚶🏻🚶🏼♀️ (8/10 for exercise “snackies”)