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The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 60 to 85% of the people in the world are sedentary, "making it one of the more serious yet insufficiently addressed public health problems of our time," health experts at the organization say. Desk jobs, an increased reliance on technology and the pandemic—and related mental, physical and environmental barriers to movement—have caused rates of inactivity to rise in recent years.

And we're not just losing out on the muscle that we might build by moving. Sedentary lifestyles can increase risk for all causes of death, the WHO adds, including doubling the risk of heart disease and diabetes. It's also been linked to an increase in the diagnosis of high blood pressure, certain types of cancers, osteoporosis and certain mental health challenges like depression and anxiety.

a father and daughter walking together outside
Credit: Getty Images

Since we know we're not going to stop sitting—hey, some research suggests that even hunter and gatherer societies in Africa sit about as much as we do stateside—researchers are on a quest to discover if there are any lifestyle habits that can help "cancel out" the negative health effects of sitting. Turns out, it might be as easy as carving out time for bite-sized exercise "snacks." According to a study published January 12 in the American College of Sports Medicine's journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, walking for 5 minutes every 30 minutes could offset the effects of extended periods of sitting.

Read on to learn more about how this sitting study worked, what the researchers say we can learn from it and what's next in this emerging field of study.

What This Exercise Study Found

Previous studies have hinted at the fact that it's not the sitting itself that's doing a number on our health and longevity; it's prolonged, uninterrupted sitting. So for this Columbia University study, scientists tapped 11 participants to visit their lab. There, the individuals sat in ergonomic chairs for 8-hour increments while they worked on computers, read, scrolled through their cell phones and at their standardized meals.

During these shifts, the participants were assigned to perform one of four different activity "snacks," or none at all, to break up their sitting time. They were only allowed to rise for restroom breaks or to walk on a treadmill according to their assigned group's prescription:

  • No walking
  • 5 minutes of walking every 60 minutes of sitting
  • 5 minutes of walking every 30 minutes of sitting
  • 1 minute of walking every 60 minutes of sitting
  • 1 minute of walking every 30 minutes of sitting

"If we hadn't compared multiple options and varied the frequency and duration of the exercise, we would have only been able to provide people with our best guesses of the optimal routine," Keith Diaz, Ph.D., lead study author and associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons tells Columbia University Irving Medical Center News.

Throughout the study, the researchers tracked several mental and physical health data points throughout the study, including mood, fatigue, cognitive performance, blood pressure, blood sugar and more.

The "optimal amount of movement," according to Dr. Diaz and his team, was 5 minutes of walking every 30 minutes. This appeared to be the only option that significantly lowered both blood sugar and blood pressure.

Echoing the findings of an earlier study that found a 2-minute walk after a meal is enough to lower blood sugar due to increase in insulin sensitivity, this team found that a 5-minute walk every 30 minutes led to a 58% reduction in blood sugar spikes after participants ate. All of the forms of exercise "snacks" lead to a 5 mmHg drop in blood pressure compared to those who stayed sitting all day.

"This is a sizeable decrease, comparable to the reduction you would expect from exercising daily for six months," Dr. Diaz adds to Columbia University Irving Medical Center News.

Why does this occur? Sitting constricts and kinks blood vessels in the legs, which alters blood flow in a way that can increase your blood pressure. These short walks are long enough to restore blood flow to the legs, and over time, put less of a burden on the heart.

All of the walking interventions, except the one that recommended a mere minute per hour, significantly lowered levels of fatigue and significantly boosted mood.

"The effects on mood and fatigue are important. People tend to repeat behaviors that make them feel good and that are enjoyable," Dr. Diaz continues.

None of the plans appear to influence cognition. However, keep in mind that this was a one-day intervention—walking just three times per week has been shown to reduce risk for dementia, and just 10 minutes per day appears to be enough to move the needle.

The Bottom Line

A new Columbia University study found that adding 5 minutes of walking to every 30 minutes of sitting may significantly improve mental and physical health to a level that may be able to counteract the negative impacts of prolonged sitting.

A few minutes here and there might not sound like a lot, but over the course of an 8-hour day, those 5-minute strolls add up to 40 minutes of walking. Do this 7 days per week, and you're at 280 total active minutes, which is well over the WHO's recommended physical activity amount of 150 minutes of moderate activity.

"For optimal health, you need to move regularly at work, in addition to a daily exercise routine," Dr. Diaz concludes in his comments to Columbia University Irving Medical Center News. "While that may sound impractical, our findings show that even small amounts of walking spread through the work day can significantly lower your risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses."

Admittedly, this was a very short and very small study, assessing just 11 people. Looking ahead, more long-term research is needed among a larger and more diverse pool of participants so we can firm up our understanding of how to reduce the harmful effects of prolonged bouts of sitting. The Columbia researchers confirm that they're currently testing 25 different "doses" of walking on a variety of health outcomes, and doing so among a wider mix of people.

As we await more on this topic, it certainly can't hurt to step things up if you find yourself sitting for the majority of the day. Set a reminder in your calendar and block off 5 minutes at the end of every half hour to do a house or office lap. Then when you're ready to step things up, try our best walking plan to help reduce stress. It starts at just 15 minutes per day!