Sitting at a desk for hours can affect our metabolic health and, over time, contribute to high blood sugar and high cholesterol, even in people who otherwise appear mostly healthy.
But a practical but small novelty to learn shows that standing up and moving around for about three minutes every 30 minutes can reduce the health effects of excessive sitting. The study found that climbing several flights of stairs, jumping through some jumping jacks or squats, or even walking just 15 steps during these short breaks improved blood sugar control in office workers without noticeably disrupting their work flow.
However, the study, which included 16 middle-aged employees at high risk for type 2 diabetes, also shows that those two-hour, three-minute breaks are likely the minimum amount of exercise needed to protect metabolic health. While 15 steps twice an hour can be a good place to start, these shouldn’t be the only steps we take to reduce our sitting posture.
Every hour of being awake in a sitting posture – that is, sitting or lying down – increases the risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes
For most of us, sitting is not just everyday, it is constant. According to epidemiological studies, adults in the United States typically sit about six and a half hours a day, most of which is uninterrupted by standing or walking. This postural weakness likely accelerated during the pandemic. Preliminary data suggest that many of us are more inactive now than in 2019, especially when we have kids and jobs.
Such incessant sitting destroys metabolic health. Or, as the authors of the new study write: “Every waking hour in a sitting posture – that is, sitting or lying – increases the risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.” To blame for sagging muscles. When we sit, the muscles in our legs, which are the largest in our body and are usually active and hungry, barely contract, so they require little energy and sip little sugar from our bloodstream. They also do not release any biochemical substances that would normally help break down fatty acids in the blood. So when we lean over our desk, blood sugar and cholesterol build up in our bloodstream.
Taking frequent breaks from sitting helps improve blood sugar control and cholesterol levels, previous studies show. But much of this research took place in university labs and only lasted a day or two, conditions that don’t reflect real life.
For the new study, published last month in the American Journal of Physiology: Endocrinology and Metabolism, an international consortium of scientists led by researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden decided to see what would happen if office workers explained willing to divide their sitting time at their normal workplace over more than three weeks.
They started recruiting 16 middle-aged men and women in Stockholm with sedentary desk jobs and a history of obesity, which put them at high risk for metabolic problems like diabetes. They checked the volunteers’ current metabolic status and asked them to wear activity monitors for a week to get baseline readings.
Then half of the volunteers resumed their normal life for control, and the rest downloaded a smartphone app that asked them to get up and be active for three minutes every 30 minutes during the work day. They sauntered down hallways, sauntered down stairs, marched in place, crouched, skipped, or loitered in any other way they found comfortable, tolerable, and not unduly distracting or amusing to their colleagues. But they had to take at least 15 steps before the app recorded their movement as a pause in activity.
The experiment lasted three weeks, after which everyone returned to the lab for another round of metabolic tests. The researchers found that the results of the two groups differed subtly. The control group showed persistent problems with insulin resistance, blood sugar control, and cholesterol levels. But the other volunteers who had stood and moved while working had lower fasting blood sugar levels in the morning, which meant their bodies had better control of blood sugar during the night, a potentially important indicator of metabolic health. Her blood sugar also stabilized throughout the day, with fewer spikes and dips than the control group, and the amount of beneficial HDL cholesterol in her bloodstream increased. These improvements were minor but, over time, could mean the difference between progressing to full blown type 2 diabetes or not.
In general, it is important to introduce more physical activity into our lives. Go down stairs instead of taking the elevator. Get off one bus stop earlier on the way home
Interestingly, profits also fluctuated based on how often and how consistently employees followed their app warnings. Those who got up regularly and were the most active – generally making 75 steps or more in the three minutes – improved their metabolism the most. Others who accumulate fewer steps or ignore their beeps frequently will benefit less.
But her metabolic health has improved a bit, says Dr. Erik Näslund, professor at the Karolinska Institute who supervised the new study. The results suggest that it pays to get up twice an hour, even if we don’t always succeed. He gave two pieces of advice to anyone concerned about excessive sitting and their metabolic health.
Download an app or set an alarm on your computer or phone to remind you to get up every half hour. Walk a few minutes. Jog in place. “Going to the bathroom or having a coffee” also counts, says Dr. Näslund, with the second potentially contributing to the first.
Make sure you keep moving outside of work hours. “In general, it’s important to bring more physical activity into our lives,” he says. “Go up stairs rather than take the elevator. Get off the bus one stop earlier on the way home. We can make so many small changes that are beneficial to metabolic health. ”- This article first appeared in the New York Times