Too much sitting increases your risk of death by 38%. A surprisingly small amount of daily exercise cancels it out

Office workers, rejoice: Just 22 minutes of physical activity a day may be enough to offset the increased risk of death that accompanies a highly sedentary lifestyle.

That’s according to new research published Tuesday in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Researchers analyzed the health and activity tracker data of nearly 12,000 people ages 50 or older from Norway, Sweden, and the U.S. over the course of 16 years. The group was split nearly evenly between men and women. 

Researchers found that participants who sat 12 or more hours a day had a 38% higher risk of death than those who sat 8 hours a day.

That rate of increased risk, however, fell as levels of moderate-to-vigorous exercise increased. Just 10 minutes of such activity per day reduced the risk of death by 35%, and 22 minutes or more completely eliminated it, researchers found.

Light physical activity was also protective against death, they discovered, but only among those who were highly sedentary.

“Small amounts of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity may be an effective strategy to ameliorate mortality risk associated with high sedentary time,” researchers concluded.

A word of caution, however: Because the study was an observational one, it couldn’t establish cause and effect. Factors like diet, mobility issues, and general health weren’t taken into account. And the activity trackers used by study participants may not have picked up on certain types of physical activity, like cycling, resistance exercises, and gardening, researchers wrote.

Countering the effects of ‘sitting disease’ with ‘exercise snacks’

In the U.S., adults spend 9.5 hours a day sitting, on average—usually while they’re at work. Thanks to the evolution of technology, sedentary jobs have increased by 83% since 1950. It’s resulted in $117 billion in annual health costs.

The cluster of negative side effects of sedentary lifestyles are referred to by some medical professionals as “sitting disease.” The more amount of time one spends sitting, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the higher their risk of health complications like:

  • Heart disease
  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Cancer 

One way to fight back, according to a 2023 study from researchers at Columbia University: an “exercise snack” of five minutes of walking for every 30 minutes of sitting. 

The brisk jaunt—completed on a treadmill by study participants—significantly lowered both blood sugar and blood pressure, major indicators of cardiometabolic health. Such “snacks” also reduced blood sugar spikes from large meals by 58%, when compared to the blood sugar levels of those who sat all day without exercising.

Researchers tested other various “exercise snacks,” including 1 minute of walking for every 30 minutes sitting, and 1 minute of walking for every 60 minutes sitting. While the former provided modest benefits in blood sugar reduction throughout the day, the latter did not. When it came to blood pressure, however, all “snacks” tested provided significant benefit, researchers said.

Based on a standard 8-hour workday, 5-minute exercise snacks every half hour would total 1 hour and 20 minutes of walking per day. It’s significantly more than the 22 bare-minimum minutes recommended by the latest study. But one thing is clear: When it comes to exercise and its positive effects on health, every little bit helps.

When it comes to how many steps one should get a day, the popular response is 10,000. But as few as 8,000 steps a day, three days a week may be enough to lower the risk of death, according to an August article in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.

Those who take less than 5,000 steps per day have a sedentary lifestyle, according to the study’s authors, who referred to such a lifestyle as “the disease of the 21st century.”

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