How sitting all day can erase a workout


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Substantial scientific evidence shows that this half-hour effort improves our health, spirit, and lifespan. The problem is how we spend the remaining 23½ hours in the day.

“It’s only in the last five years that we’ve started to understand that physical activity isn’t everything,” said Raija Korpelainen, professor of health exercise at the University of Oulu and co-author of the new study.

In the past, most research examined sitting and movement separately and tended to ignore or downplay light activities like going to the mailbox or getting another cup of coffee.

So, for the new study that was released in July Medicine & Science in Sport & ExerciseKorpelainen and her co-authors accessed a vast trove of data on almost every child born in northern Finland decades ago. The researchers tracked their lives and health as they grew and asked 3,702 of them to wear a scientific-grade activity tracker for at least a week after the group had matured.

The researchers could see, in six-second increments, whether someone was sitting all day, taking a light walk, or moving formally. Because the trackers measured movement, standing counted as inactivity, like sitting. Using this data, they characterized people fairly bluntly by how they moved.

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The active couch potatoes, who made up almost a third of the group, sat and lounged the most for more than 10 hours a day. They met recommended exercise guidelines—about 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily. But after that, they rarely got up and collected less than 220 minutes a day of light exercise.

Another group also exercised for 30 minutes and sat for long hours. But in between they often got up and walked around. Compared to the active couch potatoes, they spent about 40 percent more time — nearly 90 extra minutes per day — in what the researchers call “light activity.”

A third group sat continuously for up to 10 hours but also accumulated about an hour of exercise most days.

The final group, which the researchers appropriately dubbed “the movers,” did just that, exercising for about an hour most days while exercising about two hours longer than the active couch potato group.

When the researchers compared these groups to people’s current health records, the active couch potatoes had the worst blood sugar control, body fat percentage, and cholesterol profiles.

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The other groups were all better off, and about the same extent, with relatively improved blood sugar control and cholesterol levels and about 8 percent less body fat than the active couch potatoes, even when the researchers controlled for income, smoking, sleeping habits, and other factors.

Just move a little more

The lesson from research is that in addition to a brisk exercise, we need to move lightly and often, clean, take the stairs, stroll down the hallways, or otherwise not stand still. The sweet spot in this study was about 80 or 90 extra minutes of light activity, “but any extra exercise should be beneficial,” Farrahi said.

You can also try to squeeze in a little more movement. In this study, people benefited when they doubled their workouts to a total of 60 minutes. But again, “Do what you can,” Korpelainen said. It’s important to add just 10 or 15 minutes to a daily walk, she said, even if you don’t quite get an hour’s exercise.

“The goal is to sit less,” said Matthew Buman, a professor at Arizona State University at Tempe who studies exercise and metabolism but was not part of the new study. “We can each decide how best to get there.”

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This study has limitations. It just looks at people’s lives at a given point in time. Finns were also involved, most of them Caucasian and all reasonably active, which may not be representative of the rest of us, and did not include a fully sedentary comparison group.

Still, “it should encourage us to think about how we spend our time,” Buman said, and perhaps reconfigure our lives and spaces to make us move more. “Try putting the printer and recycle bins in another room,” he suggested, “so you’ll have to get up and go there.”

“I have fond memories of going over there a lot and just looking out the window,” Farrahi said. “The solutions don’t have to be intimidating,” he continued. “Keep it simple. Try to move more whenever you can, whenever you can and in a way that you enjoy.”

The Washington Post

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