Get up, stand up, for your health: A little exercise offsets a lot of sitting

Monique Tello, MD, MPH
Monique Tello, MD, MPH, Contributing Editor

A solid body of scientific evidence strongly suggests that the more time a person spends sitting, the higher their risk of death from any cause. Multiple large studies and high-quality data analyses show that regardless of age or health issues, the hours we spend in our office chairs, cars, or on the sofa watching television can literally kill us.

But if our jobs require us to be at a desk or behind the wheel for long shifts, what can we do? Are we destined to die earlier than landscapers, baristas, and construction workers? Should we all quit and seek an occupation that will allow us to be on our feet instead? Maybe I should have studied the culinary arts…

Not so, suggests a very well-conducted study published in July in The Lancet. These authors took a fresh look at a massive load of data from 16 large studies and including over a million subjects. They aggregated the information, re-ran the analyses, and corrected for individual and population variations. What they found was that 60 to 75 minutes of moderate physical activity like walking to work, walking the dog, riding a stationary bike, line dancing, golf or softball, doubles tennis, or coaching sports eliminates the risk of death related to sitting, even from sitting for more than eight hours per day.

Can’t get in an hour or more of these types of activities per day? Just 25 minutes of moderate activity is somewhat protective, even for people who sit for eight or more hours per day. The way physical activity energy expenditure was calculated, vigorous activities count more, so less time of the most strenuous exercise is needed to be protective.

There are lots of ways to get your daily dose of activity

Wondering what constitutes moderate and vigorous activity? The CDC has published a table describing many activities. Vigorous activities include running, soccer, backpacking, bicycling on hilly terrain, spinning or step classes, karate, and judo.

Other studies have suggested that exercise can be broken up and spread out throughout the day and still be beneficial. One study found that even hourly breaks of light activity decreased measurable damage to our arteries.

Is your time sitting spent binge-watching The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones? What was fascinating about this study was that time spent just generally sitting was analyzed separately from time spent sitting and watching television. TV time is associated with even greater risk of death, and exercise was not as protective. Even more than an hour per day of moderate activity did not eliminate the risks associated with five or more hours per day of zoning in front of the tube.

Why the extra negative effect of TV watching? The authors hypothesize that people are more likely to get up and walk around at work than they are while watching TV. In addition, people tend to watch TV in the evening after eating dinner, which may have negative effects on our blood sugars and fat metabolism. Or, perhaps people are prompted to snack on unhealthy foods during those commercials breaks.

Whether it’s sitting in an office chair or watching TV, those who get less than five minutes of moderate activity per day fare the worst, and the longer they sit, the higher their risk of death from any cause – be it heart disease or cancer.

Even a little bit of movement matters

The take-home message from the Lancet study, as well as the mountain of research in this area, is that less sitting and more exercise is the goal, and every little bit of improvement in either area helps. For those who ride to work or have a desk job, taking short movement breaks throughout the day is protective. Can’t resist watching endless hours of television? Consider buying an exercise bike or a treadmill, and place it squarely in front of the screen. In any case, find a sport or active hobby that you enjoy, and do as much, or as little, as you can, because it all counts.

Related Information: Starting to Exercise

Comments:

  1. John Lincoln

    Exercising daily is one of the best things one can do with their life! If you don’t have time for gym, doing simple activities like walking to grocery store, taking your dog out for a walk are also good enough.

  2. Tim

    Love the idea of outdoor exercise equipment. We have the location but not the funds to invest. are there grants or sponsors to support this initiative?

  3. Eldora

    Fajny material Adrian. Zgadzam sie z Toba. Takze z tym iz nalezy motywowac priaownckow alpha. Znam przypadki wyciskania takowych jak cytrynki do momentu az dojda do stanu gamma i zaczna wszystko niszczyc

  4. whyName required

    Why did you include a photo of an obviously anorexic looking woman? I know it’s only the legs but the message it sends is that you are not healthy until you look like this. (And the legs are way too thin for a normal and healthy woman)

    • Brittany

      Who says those legs are “way too thin for a normal woman and healthy woman”? Maybe our cultural perception of what’s “normal” is biased by the epidemic of obesity in our culture, and the general prevalence of overweight. Yes, we are a too-heavy culture, and it’s getting worse. Just because most of us are overweight doesn’t justify normalizing overweight.

  5. Betty J

    Good, practical solutions. Thanks!

  6. Barbara Horutz

    I like gardening, mostly because of being able to eat what I grow. The garden needs to be constantly maintained. I get up early in the morning to water and harvest my vegetables. Weeding is also something I go nearly every day. I sometimes water in the afternoon depending on how hot it is that day. Carrying buckets of water helps me use my upper body muscles and pulling weeds uses my core body muscles. I sweat a lot when I’m in the garden and I sometimes spend hours out in the yard. I have much satisfaction in gardening and I have to say, I love my little acre of heaven on earth. Watching TV puts me asleep, (too boring), I probably spend more time on the computer looking up recipes or checking emails. Reading novels are also my passion, I should read them standing to cut down on sitting too much.

    • Charl

      Yes, yes: “It is to fully acknowledge my paateounrig//fear, and focus on how I really am, right now, today.” I agree. And I think part of the reason I was/am feeling so dark is that I AM FINE. Sandy did not hurt me, I was lucky. But not to feel lucky, and instead feel so undone my how much I can’t focus on what I need to focus on… takes me to a place where I blame myself, feel dark, feel WRONG. And that is why I write. Because all your words help me be gentle to myself on the days I can’t find it. Thank you. xx

  7. eddie

    How dose this apply to raw vegans?

  8. Liang

    It’s great to read such a useful article from my own PCP! Thank you.

  9. Larry Royall

    My former job at a five star hotel required a great amount of walking.Between me getting up early in the morning before work and then work itself ,according to my fittness tracking I was getting 10-12 miles per day.I was also using the stair all the time as well.I am a construction worker now and still get up early to start out the day with running and walking but I sure miss my old job.I have to move to live.

  10. M Gilbert

    Regarding TV watching etc is it more beneficial to put your feet up while sitting or to watch while lying down as opposed to sitting with feet on the floor? Was that ever considered?

    • Monique Tello, MD, MPH
      Monique Tello, MD, MPH

      Per those studies, they do not know why sitting watching TV resulted in worse outcomes as well as damage to the arteries. As far as I can tell, no one has studied differences between lying down and sitting watching TV. I’d be willing to bet that inactivity equals inactivity, regardless of position.

  11. Adrian Scott

    Hi, I am a line haul truck driver, I work 12 to 14 hours a day, going up and down the country, what can I do, seating for long hours.You do not sleep well.

    • Lorraine

      exerciseright.com.au/exercise-tips-truck-drivers/
      This is an article from a great site that may assist you in making some positive changes. Just start with a little…

    • Frank Hinnerfeldt

      Yes it is not easy to get the needed exercise when driving long hours.
      When having a break one gets out of the car/truck tired, stiff in the back and legs.
      I suggest make it a habit to jump on the spot up to 50 times, bending the knees to maximum 90 degrees. If you can do only 3 jumps, thats fine start there, but do it before other stimulants like coffe or cirgarette. Make it a habit.

      Frank, MD (and driver)

      • Muhsin Pang

        I tried doing the basic core “tightening” in Pilates while driving . Sitting up tall, sucking belly in, lifting up kegel muscles….. My back pain never comes back.

        Muhsin, cancer survivor

      • Celina

        dai povera amet non forzarcela.. se no mette l&ic#17;annun82o in tutte le librerie “non vendetelo a lui” e il tuo nome e foto XD cmq fremo.. ank’io sono felice per te nel vedere che ti piace ancora così tanto scrivere..

    • Monique Tello, MD, MPH
      Monique Tello, MD, MPH

      I agree with Frank the driver below, in concept. Just do as much as you can, when you can.

  12. Fady Challita

    Sorry to jump on another topic but I read a lot that humble peanuts are very healthy.
    My question is: Does it have to be raw penauts or is it okay to buy the tastier, salty ones?
    Thanks

    • Patricia Fisher

      I believe raw peanuts are better, especially if you have high blood pressure issues. I was told by someone else raw peanuts have mold. I am very allergic to mold. Also, I peanuts also have a small amount of fat in them. I do not know if saturated or unsaturated fat. Processed foods have things added, like salt, which is used as a preservative in many foods. I believe Dr. Oz has said peanuts or many other nuts have benefits. However, all nuts should be used as a snack in small amounts. You can always do your own research, check out Dr. Oz’s website and even send him a concise email. Or, simply ask your doctor.

  13. GwenHill

    Years ago, I heard a health report on TV that stated that writers died earlier than police officers and firefighters. At the time, I thought it must have have been due to deadlines that disrupted writers’ circadian rhythms.
    Now, this research report and the suggested remedies are conclusive enough to take action.

    It’s time for this writer to get moving! I’m giving that walking desk another look. Even if it means throwing some things out of my tiny office, I’m making room for a treadmill desk! Thanks to the authors and those who left useful comments. Long live writers!

    • Monique Tello, MD, MPH
      Monique Tello, MD, MPH

      Wonderful! I’d love a treadmill desk, personally. Let me know how it works out!

    • Patricia Fisher

      I wish I had the elevated desk’s during the many secretarial jobs I have had especially the times I weighed more than I should have as the resulted first from the prescribed medication for approximately six years of the birth control, Demulen. A few years later I was prescribed Valium by my internist after my husband was prescribed the same for high blood pressure. He abruptly stopped taking his higher dose without telling our doctor, as he said it made him too tired early in the evening. He did continue to take his prescribed Tagamet for his bleeding gastric ulcer. He was told to stop drinking beer and instead started drinking rum and coke with a lime twist. The doctor then prescribed me the same lower of valium. When I felt extremely stressed at work while being sexually harassed, I started them more often. We then moved and I was not able to find another job and started taking what was left of his when mine ran out as the doctor who prescribed it to us was too far of a distance for me to drive. I then experienced a visual hallucination and eventually was transported to the hospital where the doctor who prescribed the Valium now works as a well respected cardiac surgeon. At that time, I was in a total state of catonia and given over 20 ECT’s in approximately six weeks and released when the psychiatric unit was closed for the Christmas holidays and my husband was given a prescription for Dalmane for me to take and we flew to FL for a vacation. The medication was prescribed take at bed. I woke up very groggy and after approximately a week I was unable to sleep at night and became frustrated when my husband complained I was tossing and turning on the soft double or full mattress in the bedroom of one of our friends home. I then while very groggy reached over and all the remaining capsules. Apparently, I fell on the floor and my husband and friend drove me to a nearby hospital and my stomach may have been emptied as I have no real clear memory. We stayed another few day’s and returned to MI. However, I started drooling uncontrollably and easily agitated and was admitted to another psychiatric unit at a larger hospital by a sister and my husband Christmas Eve and was asked what medication I wanted until I could be seen by a doctor and as another sister suggested Thorazine I was given that and eventually sent home after 4 or 6 weeks. I was released with the medication Elavil and within a short time side affects
      if my legs when seated started raising in the air. My husband found it amusing when he came home intoxicated that evening and I slept in our smaller bedroom and after another day of uncontrolled muscle movements, that evening I again OD’d. My husband drove me to the same large hospital and charcoal was used and I was again admitted inpatient and again given Thorazine in increased higher doses, using both pill or capsules, then a terrible tasting liquid form. I was released after being prescribed 2,200 mgs and believe I then had a said affect I called the ;
      “thorazine shuffle” when trying to walk. We then moved to Palatine, IL and was was told I was borderline diabetic and managed toI lose weight. However, ended up inpatient and my outpatient psychiatrist was on vacation and many other psychotropic meds were started and stopped because of observed side affects until he returned and treated me with many vitamins and was released and had been let go from my job. I must now go to bed and unable to continue.

  14. Joe Popolow

    This is strictly anecdotal, with no medical professional credentials!
    I see no mention of a long and deep good night’s sleep! I am 86 years of age and try to get 10 hours sleep per night. I find it better for my mental
    acuity, than exercise. I feel that the older one gets. the less exercise one should do! Joints and other parts of the body can wear out! I still have everyone of my original parts. Good nutrition is also extremely important!

    • Monique Tello, MD, MPH
      Monique Tello, MD, MPH

      Joe: There’s a large body of medical literature that suggests that there are many health benefits associated with adequate sleep, so you are spot-on there. As far as risks of exercise with age and frailty, of course, your concerns are valid. If water exercises like swimming or water “jogging” are an option for you, they may be safer. Yoga is also excellent at any age- gentle yoga, that is. Any activity that you feel safe and comfortable doing is good activity.

      • Denis Daly

        The research regarding sleep is interesting. Too little sleep is associated with early mortality. Interestingly, too much sleep is also also associated with mortality. 10 hours sounds a bit too high. Stick to 8 hours and do some light exercise. Exercise is good for the body and the brain.

    • Denis Daly

      Hi the type of analysis that was conducted was very powerful. From my reading of the article “it took 60-75 minutes or moderate intensity physical activity per day to eliminate the increased risk of death associated with high sitting time”. So that’s 420-525 minutes a week far more than recommended in this article.

      In addition, the research was not fine grained enough to study the effects of some types of sitting at work. For example, some sitting jobs are more active than others. I tend to read and type a lot, read more than write, and so what I do is closer to watching TV at times. From reviewing all the articles on sitting I am now getting up every 20 minutes for 2 minutes of exercise in addition to doing my hour exercise after work.

      I wish this research was around years ago.

      • Monique Tello, MD, MPH
        Monique Tello, MD, MPH

        It is a lot of minutes of activity required to completely counteract the damage of sitting, but every bit counts! And yes, I agree, not all sitting jobs are equal. Personally, I am looking into standing desks.

    • Muhsin Pang

      Yes, sleep is absolutely important , according to my oncologist .
      Early to bed is the key to better sleep, that really improved my chemo brain a lot!
      Exercise , Nutrition, Sleep…….akin to the 3 parts of an egg .

      Muhsin , cancer survivor

    • Joan HC

      But “use it or lose it.” The less you move the ol’ bod, the harder it gets. Besides, to keep bones strong, they’ve found, requires the attached muscles to put stress on them. So exercise!

  15. Sharon S.

    I recently read that people in the Blue Zones do not sit for longer than 60-90 minutes at a time.

  16. Sonyjamyn

    I do stretching exercises every morning (15 minutes) while I watch Good Morning America, then I do some jazzercise routines to dance music (15 minutes) for cardio. I have to sit at a computer all day to do my job but I walk from my car to my office (5 minutes), I walk around the office during the day (15-20 minutes), I’ll take an occasional stroll from one end of the the building to the next (15 minutes), then when day is done, walk to my car (5 minutes). I do some light housekeeping when I get home (15 minutes). I fix and eat dinner with my mate and then we both SIT AND WATCH TV for at least 3 hours, getting up to pee, clean the kitchen, then go to bed. He walks the dog so that’s his exercise. Weekends, we play in a band on Sat., on Sunday, WE REST! If this isn’t enough exercise, then I guess I’ll die sooner than I should – 82 instead of 92! But I WILL BE HAPPY!

  17. J. Paul Everett, IE

    If possible, one could have a stand up desk, too. A basic work place principle is the person should be able to alternately sit or stand. Known for more than 70 years on the factory floor. Old we get too soon, smart too late.

  18. Rally

    This is a common problem especially with those who are doing sitting job. So I appreciate your suggestion to take exercise daily to keep your body fit and be stress free.

  19. Sri Sairam Subhayatra

    Very nice post. I will share this information to all my friends. Thanks for sharing your view.

  20. Jennifer Berkey

    This is a basic topic yet something we shouldn’t take it for granted.

  21. Jennifer Berkey

    This is a basic topic yet something we shouldn’t take for granted.