Three-minute training breaks counteract the negative effects of sitting

Taking frequent breaks from sitting also helps improve blood sugar control and cholesterol levels, as 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.