Office workers need extra exercise to combat the effects of sitting, new study shows

(CNN)- Are you tired of sitting at that desk all day? According to a new study published in JAMA Network Open, it’s not good for your health either.

People who spend most of the day sitting at work have a 16% higher risk of death from all causes and a 34% higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease. According to the researchers, to counteract this increased risk, people who spend a lot of time sitting at work would need to get 15 to 30 minutes more of physical activity daily to reduce these risks relative to people who do not work. But don’t spend too much time. Time to sit.

As I sit down to write, I wonder what I should do with the results of this study. What can office workers do to reduce the increased health risks from lack of activity? Is it better to be active a small amount every day, or should we save energy for a larger portion of exercise on the weekend? And what about people who are already taking medications to treat obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases?

I contacted Dr. Leana Wen, a CNN wellness expert, emergency physician, and adjunct associate professor at George Washington University. She previously served as the Health Commissioner of Baltimore.

CNN: Are you surprised by the study’s findings that people who are primarily sedentary at work have a 16% higher mortality rate from all causes and a 34% higher mortality rate from heart disease?

Dr. Lena Wen: I am not surprised by the substance of the study, although the magnitude of the impact is large and should certainly be a call to action.

For years, we’ve known that sitting for long periods of time has negative health effects: increasing the risk of chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular death. Studies have also shown that even light activity to break up periods of prolonged sitting can reduce that risk. A 2023 Columbia University study found that people who engaged in light activity for just five minutes every 30 minutes had nearly a 60% reduction in their post-meal blood sugar. People who exercised just one minute every 30 minutes experienced a drop in blood pressure.

It’s important to note that the exercise people did in that study was not intense. Rather, it was a slow walk on a treadmill at a speed of 3 kilometers per hour, which is slower than most people walk.

Another 2023 study found that replacing 30 minutes of sedentary activity with very light activity like walking or standing improved key measures like body mass index (BMI) and cholesterol levels. Higher intensity exercise had greater benefits, but the important thing here is that even light activity for short periods of time made a difference.

This new JAMA Network Open study is important because it included many participants (more than 480,000) and the researchers followed them for an average of about 13 years. They also adjusted data for gender, age, education, tobacco and alcohol consumption, and BMI. I think it’s remarkable that they found such a clear difference in all-cause mortality and especially heart disease mortality.

Let’s imagine that there were a drug that was able to significantly reduce the chances of dying from heart disease. This will be very popular. Or the opposite: What if there were lifestyle habits that increased the chance of dying from a myocardial infarction or stroke? People will make every effort to change that habit, as they should if they spend a lot of time sitting at work.

CNN: What can workers behind desks do to reduce the increased health risks from inactivity?

Wayne: The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate to high-intensity exercise per week. That’s about 22 minutes a day, or if people exercise five times a week, it’s about 30 minutes each time. Ideally, you should spend at least this much time walking, running, bicycling, exercising on an elliptical machine, or generally exercising for at least this amount each week.

Many desk workers already participate in some version of these activities, but could work to increase the duration and intensity of the activities. Instead of walking down the street once before dinner, how about we walk twice? How about going to the gym three times a week instead of twice? Can they park a few blocks away and walk quickly to and from work? These small changes can add up.

This actually doesn’t have to be a huge change: According to the studies I cited above, very small amounts of light physical activity during work hours can improve health. These are sometimes called “exercise snacks”. Some things people can do include getting up every 30 minutes or an hour or taking a walk around their office — or for those who work from home, around their house, down the hall, down the hallway of their apartment. Or in the garden. They can also plank or jump. People who have more difficulty with mobility can still do stretches such as side bends and rotations in their chair. It may also help to practice breathing exercises that deeply engage the diaphragm.

Mobility trainer Dana Santas shows exercises to combat the negative effects of sitting for long periods of time, whether you’re working out at home or in the office.

CNN: What about people who haven’t done much exercise and can’t immediately get up to 150 minutes a week?

Wayne: There is a good news for them. A study published last year found that just half the recommended amount of exercise had a big impact on improving health. While those who met the 150-minute limit per week had the most significant benefits, just 75 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week (that’s about 11 minutes per day) was associated with a 23% lower risk of premature death. Was connected to. It also reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

For me, the main takeaway is that some exercise is better than none. More is better if possible, but people who currently lead a sedentary lifestyle should not feel intimidated. Each person should start where they are and consider their current fitness level, time constraints, type of job, etc.

If someone is already active, they can increase the frequency and intensity of their exercise regimen. But if there is no one, they can start with the basics and slowly start working their way up. Those who are short on time can try combining these walks with phone calls. They can work on basic mobility and strength exercises, including exercises that don’t require any additional equipment. And they can incorporate “short exercise breaks” into their workday. Maybe you can set an alarm to get up every hour, walk, and stretch. Simple behavior changes, when made consistently, add up over time.

CNN: Is it better to be active in small amounts throughout the workday or save energy for a larger block of exercise on the weekend?

Wayne: Definitely the first. Prolonged inactivity poses health risks. Ideally, people can do both with periods of more intense exercise (for example, biking on the weekend and running during the week, as well as getting up more often to stop sitting during the day). But people who do intense exercise only once on the weekend should not think that this is enough to counter the damage caused by sitting for long periods of time during the week.

CNN: What about people who are already taking medications to treat obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases? Should they also pay attention to these recommendations?

Wayne: Yes. Medicines are not a substitute for lifestyle changes. Of course, people with chronic diseases should consult their doctor to make sure exercise is safe and appropriate for them, but better health won’t come from medication alone. Diet and physical activity are key components of living a healthy life.

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