We all sit far more than is good for us.1 And by now the physiology of sitting and the epidemiology of its aftermath have been pretty well worked out: We sit for more than 8 hours every day, and as we sit our posture collapses, our core weakens, and our metabolic health worsens. Epidemiological models find that those who sit the most die two years sooner than those who sit the least.2
The root problem is the disconnect between the bodies we have and the lives we live. In a nutshell: we are perfectly evolved for a hunter-gatherer life, but unfortunately the hunter-gatherer career path has been foreclosed. For most of us, it’s screens and more screens as far as we can see into the future.
Researchers understand this situation as a public health crisis and propose that we simply sit less. Unfortunately, “blaming the victim” rarely solves problems. And we really are the victims of modernity, because in most cases we cannot choose not to sit: sitting is baked into our jobs, our amusements, our transportation, … We sit to do almost everything.
Realizing that simply commanding folks to “sit less” isn’t much help, researchers have turned their attention exactly how we should sit less. And the results are surprising.
A 5 minute walk every 30 minutes is sufficient to offset much of the metabolic harm of sitting passively all day.
National Public Radio recently aired a piece3 highlighting research by exercise physiologist Keath Diaz at Columbia University. Dr. Diaz has found that a 5-minute walk every 30 minutes is sufficient to offset much of the metabolic harm of sitting passively all day4. Not only were serum glucose levels reduced, but systolic blood pressure was reduced by 5mm, enough to make a significant impact on health.
Unfortunately, this is a sort of “good news, bad news” story: it’s important that Dr. Diaz has found a way to minimize the harm of passive sitting, but the solution, getting up every 30 minutes for a 5-minute walk, may not work for everyone, because it works out to 16 interruptions every work day.
Unfortunately… “A sedentary break dose may be physiologically effective, but if few want to follow it, the its public health relevance is questionable”
It turns out that, while understanding the physiologic effect of interrupting prolonged sitting on serum glucose levels is necessary, it may not be sufficient to solve the problem, because breaking up prolonged bouts of sitting is at root a behavioral, not a biochemical, problem. As Diaz observes in his paper: “A sedentary break dose may be physiologically effective, but if few want to follow it, its public health relevance is questionable”.
We are only just now discovering just how little exercise is actually required to offset the harms of passive sitting. And the news is good: just 5 minutes of walking every half hour is sufficient. Unfortunately, even this low bar may be too big an imposition for most people who, after all, have memos to write, spreadsheets to fill in, emails to send, and online shopping to do.
What’s really needed to improve our metabolic health at work is a way to seamlessly integrate more movement into our work day, so that getting a bit of exercise doesn’t require a conscious choice, but rather is simply a part of every day.
Breaking up prolonged bouts of sitting is at root a behavioral, not a biochemical, problem.
And this may be the real value of active sitting. Once people transition to sitting actively they are guaranteed the equivalent of 3,000 steps of exercise, without ever getting up from their spreadsheet. Of course, going for a stroll while on a phone call or running up a few flights of stairs for a break are also great. But sitting on an active chair ensures that one gets a little more active constantly. So, a bit of a workout doesn’t have to seem like work, and disappears into the fabric of your workday.