Minimal exercise can counteract sedentary lifestyle

On February 23, 2016

Originally posted 30th March 2015 at

Sitting is the new smoking. I hope you were standing for that.

As a researcher in the rehabilitation sciences, I applaud the sentiment behind this catchphrase, radical as it may seem.

Our culture has long underestimated the dangers of sedentary living. Until now, most of us thought we could work out regularly and then spend the rest of the day sitting at the computer, in the car or on the couch. Exercise was a golden ticket to good health — even if we did nothing else for the rest of the day.

Many people got a wake-up call in January, when U of T researchers found that people who sit more die earlier from all different causes. Research is starting to show that being physically active a few minutes at a time throughout the day could be as important — if not more — than doing a single heart-pounding workout.

This advice may seem like a lot more work, but I see it as good news for busy parents, time-strapped workers and people who hate to exercise.

That’s because you don’t need to break a sweat to get your body moving. You can elevate your heart rate just by doing household chores or taking a relaxing walk. When scientists talk about the dangers of sitting, we don’t mean you have to run marathons instead. Movement — any movement at all — helps fight the problem.

When you sit still for too long for too many years, problems build up. Your muscles shorten, tighten and become weak. You lose flexibility and develop joint problems, herniated discs and chronic energy loss.

On the other hand, even gentle movement gets your blood flowing and increases your heart rate and breathing, which helps your lungs. Exercise is great, of course, and it’s ideal if you could work out and move your body throughout the day. But if you can’t (or won’t) do anything more strenuous, taking regular breaks from sitting is very valuable.

Some ideas:

The Walking Meeting: If you have an office job, go for a walk with your colleagues. Bring a small notebook or just dictate notes into your phone. I do this a lot and people love it. As a bonus, movement causes increased blood flow to the brain, so you may find it easier to concentrate and think during a walking meeting — especially compared with a crowded office with too little oxygen.

The Five-Minute Restart: If you’re desk-bound, get up and walk around for five to seven minutes every hour. Refill your water glass, walk up and down the stairs or just circle around the office. Taking a short walk before lunch helps your digestion.

The Desk Jock: If walking breaks aren’t an option, at the very least you can raise yourself up several times in a row from your chair. Or stand behind your chair, hold on to the edge and bend your knees in a series of squats. Stretch your neck from side to side and shrug your shoulders.

These gentle changes can have big effects over time. I treat people who live with lung, heart and kidney disease. Just by adding these types of physical activity, one patient was able to start walking downstairs to get his morning newspaper again. A man recovering from stroke was able to start using the subway again, greatly increasing his independence.

Studies show most people think they move much more than they do. A good goal is to walk 10,000 steps a day — not all at once, but throughout the day. That’s the equivalent of about eight kilometers, which may sound daunting, but the average person walks more than half that distance in a typical day. Taking a five-minute walking break every hour of your work day would add several thousand steps to your daily total. Add in a stroll before lunch and after dinner, and you’re almost there. No gym membership required!

If you’re considering moving more, the hardest part is sticking with it long enough to develop the habit. I suggest finding little ways to reward yourself for your efforts in those crucial first few weeks. And keep reminding yourself that it will get easier. Eventually, you’ll come to enjoy adding more movement to your life. 

Dr. Dina Brooks is a Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and a Canada Research Chair in Rehabilitation in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.

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