We all know that sitting all day long is bad for your health. But to counter the damage done by that sedentary behavior, you may not need to spend hours exerting yourself. In fact, new research suggests you can live a longer life if you just find 30 minutes a day to do any kind of activity.
The study, which took place at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City, found that replacing 30 minutes of sitting with even very light activity is associated with an increase in lifespan.[fn] Diaz, Keith M.; et al. “Potential Effects on Mortality of Replacing Sedentary Time With Short Sedentary Bouts or Physical Activity: A National Cohort Study.” American Journal of Epidemiology. 14 January 2019. Accessed 22 January 2019. http://academic.oup.com/aje/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/aje/kwy271/5245876?redirectedFrom=fulltext.
[/fn] These results are based on information collected on 7,999 American men and women, all of whom were over the age of 45. The subjects were involved in national Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke study, for which they wore trackers that recorded all of their physical activity for a minimum of four days.
By analyzing the information gathered by the activity trackers, the investigators determined how much time each participant spent being sedentary and how much time being active. They then tracked the volunteers’ medical history for more than five years to gain important health-related data. All of this information was plugged into simulations that estimated mortality risk and determined the potential effects of adding activity, which would correspondingly lower the time spent sitting.
According to the models created, even small increases in movement were enough to lower the risk of dying. What’s more, the impact was the same whether the gains in activity took place in one long stretch or were broken into several segments. In other words, half an hour of extra activity was equally beneficial if it was done at once or in three 10-minute spurts.
All kinds of movement were shown to produce positive results, even the least strenuous types of exercise. For example, spending up to 30 minutes doing a light workout such as slower walking instead of sitting was associated with a 17 percent reduction in death risk. And if sitting time was instead substituted for 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous exercise, the benefits increased further to an approximately 35 percent lower risk of early death.
Putting a little more time into activity was found to up the ante of benefits even further. An hour of physical activity extended longevity by 34 percent, which was double what a half hour of lighter intensity exercise could do. However, the researchers discovered a ceiling of roughly three-and-a-half hours beyond which no additional lifespan increases were seen. But realistically, most of us are never going to come anywhere near spending three-and-a-half hours a day on our workouts.
After all this good news, there is one problem that we do have to take into consideration. The design of the study means its outcomes are dependent solely on simulations rather than differences observed in actual people. So, rather than seeing evidence of certain results over time in the subjects and controls in place to limit the influence of other factors, this type of research is based on simulations formulated by what is expected to occur, which isn’t always the same as what happens in reality.
That being said, we do have plenty of evidence from numerous sources that living a sedentary lifestyle is unhealthy, sitting too long is dangerous over time, and adding exercise to your daily routine is beneficial to your health and longevity. Therefore, the takeaway from this research is to get up and get moving, even if you don’t have the time or motivation right then to dedicate an hour to a traditional workout.
Spend 30 minutes walking or, if you can’t even squeeze that in, take a few 10-minute breaks throughout your day to engage in activity. Maybe during one of these mini sessions you take a walk, another is spent going up and down the stairs at your workplace, and the third involves doing an assortment of calisthenics when you get home. The point is, all of us can make the time to get more active in quick spurts and it really will pay off in health improvements in the long run. And remember, as Jon Barron has pointed out, if all you can do is hobble around the house with a cane, do that—and every day extend the amount of time you move about the house. It doesn’t matter where you start your exercise—as long as you start and steadily improve.