Sitting too much may send you to an early death, likely from chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and more, according to research.
Obviously, the solution is to get up off your tush and move.
Building on a body of evidence, a new analysis showed the greatest benefits for weight loss come from moderate-to-vigorous physical activity such as running, brisk walking, cycling, swimming or even stair climbing.
An exercise is moderate intensity if you can talk but not sing while doing it, experts say. Vigorous-intensity exercise occurs when you can’t say more than a few words without stopping to breathe.
Yet other, less strenuous activities can help as well, the study published Thursday in the European Heart Journal revealed, including one that may surprise you — sleeping.
Quality sleep helps
Just swapping 30 minutes of sitting for 30 minutes of sleeping each day lowered overall body mass by nearly 1 pound (0.43 kg/m2) and sliced about two-thirds of an inch (1.75 centimeters) from waistlines, the study found. Body mass index, or BMI, is a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of the body’s height in meters.
“The question is, if you have a restorative or recharging sleep, is that better than sitting on the couch eating and watching TV? And I suspect the answer is yes, because so many people are deficient in sleep,” said Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver. He was not involved in the study.
“Does that mean you can just sleep away your cardiovascular risk and hope it improves? I don’t think this study says that. And if you said to me, ‘Well, what if I lie in bed and watch TV?’ That’s not exactly what the study says either,” Freeman said.
“Eating right, exercising, getting rid of stress, sleeping enough and connecting with others, all of these are powerful ways to reduce cardiovascular risk.”
Standing and light activity
A similar benefit in weight loss and reduction in waist circumference was seen for people who replaced 30 minutes of sitting with an equal amount of standing or light activity such as walking, the study found.
“Replacing sedentary behaviours with any activity can improve BMI (body mass index), waist circumference, cholesterol and triglycerides,” according to a statement by the authors.
Activity intensity has advantages, the study found. When people did a half hour of moderate-to-vigorous exercise in lieu of sitting, the benefits rose, producing well over 1 pound of weight loss (0.63kg/m2) and stripping about 1 inch (2.4 centimeters) of fat from around the waist.
“Though it may come as no surprise that becoming more active is beneficial for heart health, what’s new in this study is considering a range of behaviours across the whole 24-hour day,” said joint senior author Mark Hamer, a clinical professor in the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Health at University College London.
“This approach will allow us to ultimately provide personalised recommendations to get people more active in ways that are appropriate for them,” Hamer said in a statement.
International study uses objective measures
The new study was the first to emerge from the international Prospective Physical Activity, Sitting and Sleep, or ProPASS, consortium, a multinational study that uses objective measures to analyze movement.
“A key novelty of the ProPASS consortium is the use of wearable devices that better differentiate between types of physical activity and posture, allowing us to estimate the health effects of even subtle variations with greater precision,” said joint senior author Emmanuel Stamatakis, professor of physical activity, lifestyle and population health at the University of Sydney, in a statement.
A team of researchers at University College London analyzed the results of six studies with authors based in Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Spain, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and United States.
While the study found swapping sitting for sleep improved health, benefits were not equal, the authors said. Sleeping improved BMI and waist circumference but had “negligible effects on blood-based markers” such as cholesterol, triglycerides and blood glucose levels.
However, intense activity saw a significant benefit. The authors estimated the change for a 54-year-old woman with an average BMI of 26.5.
“A 30-minute change translated into a 0.64 decrease in BMI, which is a difference of 2.4%,” a statement from the authors said. “Replacing 30 minutes of daily sitting or lying time with moderate or vigorous exercise could also translate into a 2.5 cm (2.7%) decrease in waist circumference or a 1.33 mmol/mol (3.6%) decrease in glycated haemoglobin,” which is an average measurement of blood sugars for three months.
“The big takeaway from our research is that while small changes to how you move can have a positive effect on heart health, intensity of movement matters,” said first author Jo Blodgett, a research fellow in the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Health at University College London, in a statement.
Taking ‘activity snacks’
Becoming active isn’t always easy, but it’s important to make changes you can stick to that you enjoy, said James Leiper, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, who was not involved in the study.
“Anything that gets your heart rate up can help,” Leiper said in a statement. “Incorporating ‘activity snacks’ such as walking while taking phone calls, or setting an alarm to get up and do some star jumps every hour is a great way to start building activity into your day, to get you in the habit of living a healthy, active lifestyle.”
Even getting up and moving every hour for five minutes has been shown to help, according to a study published in January. Snippets of motion helped with cardiovascular tone: Even one minute of walking every hour was shown to reduce blood pressure in study participants, the study found.
What if you work for a boss who might frown on taking breaks? Moving doesn’t have to mean leaving your desk if that’s not in your workplace culture, said CNN fitness contributor Dana Santas, a mind-body coach for professional athletes.
“You can simply practice box squats by getting up and sitting back down gently then popping right back up again and repeating that motion over and over,” Santas said via email.
If you do have more room to move around than a desk, Santas recommends a dance break.
“Since most songs average at least 3 minutes, you can dance off the negative impact of too much sitting. And, as a bonus — dancing to your favorite tunes will also boost your mood!” she said.