A Scientific Study Revealed How Much Exercise Your Body Needs To Cancel Out A Day Of Sitting

Do you spend a lot of your day sitting at a desk? Many of us do, beavering away in front of a screen. And then we go home and spend more hours on the internet or watching TV. More and more, these days, we find we spend our lives sitting down, and that just isn’t good for us.

Maybe you’re now working from home, so it’s become even harder for you to fit in exercise. You don’t get that walk to the office anymore, and, of course, you never have to run to catch a train or bus. Even getting to the gym has been hard for many in recent times.

It isn’t good for us to spend so long on our butts. Regardless if we’re in the home, office or at work, sitting down is hurting our health. But it’s not all bad news. It turns out that the harm can be entirely canceled out by doing a certain amount of physical activity. Do you think you are doing enough?

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A recent study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine revealed how much that level of exercise is. And it’s crucial to try and get that into your life. Why? Because scientists have discovered that if you do, the chances are that you’ll live longer ­– and in better health.

Journal co-editor Emmanuel Stamatakis, who’s a professor at the University of Sydney, told U.K. tabloid Metro about the quality of the research in November 2020. He said it was “the best available science,” although he did suggest that there were “still some gaps in our knowledge.” One gap, he suggested, was that scientists weren’t sure “where exactly the bar for ‘too much sitting’ is.”

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Stamatakis was hopeful of progress though. He told Metro, “But this is a fast-paced field of research, and we will hopefully have answers in a few years’ time.” And acknowledging that it could be hard to fit in exercise, he added, “People can still protect their health and offset the harmful effects of physical inactivity.”

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How bad a problem is a lack of exercise? Well, according to the health body the World Health Organization (WHO), a really bad one. It says that four out of ten adults in the United States stay sitting too much. It’s an issue that’s particularly problematic in wealthy nations: nearly as many Brits are too inactive.

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The WHO reported in 2018 that people hadn’t bettered their amounts of exercise since 2001. And on top of the United States, Germany had a problem with too much sitting. Not only that, so did Argentina and Brazil and some places in the Caribbean. Because of the lack of change, the organization had decided to raise the alarm.

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Study lead Dr. Regina Guthold didn’t hold back when she told the press in a statement, “Unlike other major global health risks, levels of insufficient physical activity are not falling worldwide, on average, and over a quarter of all adults are not reaching the recommended levels of physical activity for good health.” Scary stuff.

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Guthold’s words echoed those of expert Steven Blair, who’d told the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2009 that Americans’ sedentary lifestyle was “the biggest public health problem of the 21st century.” And the University of South Carolina professor had some ideas about why the seated life had become so prevalent.

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Blair told the APA’s annual conference that it wasn’t only having an office job that made people sedentary. He said that they didn’t do any physical activity regularly, including house or yard work. Talking about the States in particular, he said when interviewed, “This amounts to 40 million to 50 million people exposed to the hazard of inactivity.”

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The exercise guru added, “Given that these individuals are doubling their risk of developing numerous health conditions compared with those who are even moderately active and fit, we’re looking at a major public health problem.” Blair had gotten his figures from a study of 80,000 people, which had run since 1970.

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When Blair said it was a big health problem, he meant it. Because when scientists looked at more than 40,000 people taken from the main study, they found that low fitness was responsible for 16 percent of deaths. And it was even worse for people who had other health problems, such as obesity or diabetes.

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Plus it wasn’t just the effects on the body that worried Blair. He said exercise was also important for people’s mental health. He urged psychologists to get involved in getting people more active. He said, “Over the past few decades, we have largely engineered the need for physical activity out of the daily lives of most people in industrialized societies.”

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Indeed, it’s a feature of modern life that we now move less and less. We’ve gone from a life that would have posed serious demands on our bodies to one that has us do as little physical work as possible. Now we sit more, and for lengthy periods. And this change has happened in the space of a generation.

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A 2010 study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found a huge change from just 30 years before. Yes, in 1970 about 20 percent of Americans who worked had had light jobs while about 30 percent had jobs for which a lot of energy was needed. But in 2000 that had changed: about 40 percent now did office work and 20 percent raised a sweat.

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The researchers had even worse news, though. They found that from 1989 through 2009, the number of homes with a computer linked to the internet shot up from 15 percent to 69 percent. Today, it’s probably nearly all of them. And that’s meant that people sit in their leisure time too.

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All this sitting takes its toll, you see. A lifestyle that isn’t active enough can bring health problems. As you might expect, obesity is top of the list – lack of exercise means the pounds can pile on. This also tends to increase diabetes and cardiovascular disease. But there are even some varieties of cancer that are more prevalent in those who don’t exercise.

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Not moving for a long time can cut your metabolic rate. Plus it can damage the body’s ability to keep the level of sugar in your blood under control. And it makes the regulation of blood pressure more difficult, too. Exercising, meanwhile, helps your body to break fat down.

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A study in 2011 that looked at research done in the previous 15 years discovered some alarming outcomes. It found that sedentary living increased the chance of early death.But it found that result even among those who were physically active, and more recent research questions whether that’s correct, as we’ll see.

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Another study of more than 10,000 people found that if you’re not active physically, you’re at greater risk of a mental illness. A review confirmed this: data taken from more than 100,000 study participants showed a link between the sedentary lifestyle and the chances of becoming depressed. So the outlook for both body and mind from sitting too long is grim.

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But there is some positive news. Yes, a November 2020 study revealed an answer to the peril of sedentary life. The study was a meta-analysis looking at nine studies that had a total of more than 44,000 participants. And yes, they found first of all that staying seated for more than 10 hours a day had drastically bad outcomes.

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The scientists published their meta-analysis in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. It was a joint effort that brought together experts from both sides of the Atlantic and further afield. Researchers from the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway and Australia joined to try to discover whether there was anything that people could do to alleviate the effects of a sedentary lifestyle.

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The nine studies included three whose participants had been selected to represent the populations of the States, Norway and Sweden. And each of the people taking part had been wearing an accelerometer. The advantage of studying people with fitness trackers is that you have hard data about the activity they’ve undertaken and don’t have to rely on their own report.

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But the researchers didn’t only find that not exercising puts you at risk of ill health. They also discovered that if you do 30 to 40 minutes of physical activity each day that was of moderate-to-vigorous intensity, then you’d, “substantially [weaken] this risk, bringing it down to levels associated with very low amounts of sedentary time.” Yes, you can cancel the bad effects of sedentary living.

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What’s more, doing this amount of activity each day might lengthen your life. The scientists wrote, “In active individuals doing about 30-40 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity, the association between high sedentary time and risk of death is not significantly different from those with low amounts of sedentary time.”

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So if you can do up to 40 minutes of exercise, you can make up for 10 hours of sedentary life, according to the researchers. And the good news is that even if you can’t do the 40 minutes, smaller amounts of exercise will still help. Even just standing rather than sitting will give you some benefit. The researchers said, “As these guidelines emphasize, all physical activity counts and any amount of it is better than none.”

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But doesn’t getting in that much exercise mean you need to go to the gym? No, say the researchers. They explained to Metro, “There are plenty of indoor options that don’t need a lot of space or equipment, such as climbing the stairs, active play with children or pets, dancing, or online yoga or Pilates classes.”

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If you’re wondering what “vigorous” means in terms of exercise, you’re not alone. It’s not well defined. But one way you can measure your effort is the “talk test.” If you’re exercising at moderate intensity, you should have the capacity for talking but not singing. If you’re at vigorous intensity, well, you’ll struggle to say a full sentence without needing to breathe in.

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The researchers confirmed that their findings pretty much matched what the WHO recommends. That organization suggests between 150 and 300 minutes a week at moderate intensity, or at least 100 at vigorous. But the WHO agrees that any amount is better than none. Even if it’s only taking the stairs rather than the elevator, that will help.

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The Centers for Disease Control concur with the WHO. They suggest two and a half hours a week at moderate intensity, or 75 minutes if you are vigorously active, for healthy people. On top of that you should be working out at least a couple times a week to strengthen your muscles.

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And the researchers say that any adult, even those who are living with a disability or have a health condition, should try to strengthen their muscles at least twice in every week. You should be trying for at least moderate intensity, doing such things as conditioning your core or lifting weights.

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Older people can also gain some benefit from exercise. It’s recommended that those aged 65 and above get physically active. For them, the focus is on balance and strength. They should work three times or more a week at moderate or higher intensity. This will improve their functioning and help avoid falls.

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Plus when the researchers say that activity is for everyone, they mean everyone! Even pregnant women can get some benefit. Yup, they should keep active throughout their pregnancy and once their baby has been born. Even carrying a child shouldn’t keep them from doing cardiovascular exercise, albeit carefully, or strengthening their muscles.

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Well, that’s what we should be doing, but is everyone doing it? Sadly not. The WHO reported in 2018 that 23 percent of males and 32 percent of females just weren’t getting enough exercise. And that even included the time they spent getting to work, whether on foot or by bike, and getting active while at work.

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But there are ways to increase activity, without even really trying. For instance, if you’re catching a little TV, you could stand in every break for ads. Maybe step away from the screen at work too, just from time to time. Set an alarm on your phone to remind you to go grab water or take five to hang out with a work buddy.

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If you do work in an office, maybe you could use a standing desk. These are becoming much more common. And while it might seem like extra work standing up at your desk, they actually cut fatigue. If your boss needs convincing, tell them that research shows that they make workers more productive.

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A bit of creativity can help you get more active during the working day. If you’re in an office, you could go see the people you need to communicate with, rather than emailing them. Perhaps you could even hold meetings outside work, in a café that you have to walk to.

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Back home, there are plenty of ways to become more active. If you get the bus, perhaps you could get on a stop later than usual, allowing a short walk first. Perhaps you could walk home if it’s close or take a walk after you’re done. Plus there are plenty of classes that you could sign up to, and you’re not limited to running, walking or lifting.

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And you could try to cut sitting time at home too. Perhaps you could restrict TV time to an hour or have a break from emails or the internet. A benefit of doing this could be that you can involve the whole family. Your kids might not welcome time without the internet, but they’ll really enjoy the health benefits of staying active instead.

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