The Dangers of Sitting All Day and How to Reverse Them

By Natalie Laubach RD, LDN, CDCES, Diabetes Care and Education Specialist at Signature Healthcare

With the transition to work-from-home culture post-pandemic, only getting up from the desk for a snack during the workday has become the new normal. Even for those of us who don’t work from home, most jobs require work on the computer or at a desk which, in turn, may make us feel chained to our workspace, leaving little time to get up, move around, and use our muscles.

Let’s view it this way; a typical workday is 9 hours, and figure at least 8 of those hours are spent sitting at a desk working. That amounts to 40 hours of sitting during the work week just from work alone. When you account for the time spent sitting in the car, sitting to eat, or sitting on the couch to wind down, that amounts to most of the day spent… you guessed it, sitting.  Sitting for long periods of time has been linked to negative health outcomes and chronic diseases like diabetes, dementia, and heart disease. One research study found that people who sat for 12-13 hours per day were more than twice as likely to die early even with exercise, than people who sat for shorter amounts of time.

The good news is there is research that found a solution to the negative effects of sitting, and it is pretty surprising. My own hypothesis is the more intense the exercise, the better it would be for our health but that (thankfully) is not the case here. Columbia University Medical Center conducted a study under the direction of Keith Diaz to discover the minimum amount of time of movement needed to negate the negative health effects of sitting. Their conclusion is that five minutes of walking every half-hour was enough to reverse the consequences of sitting. By using a continuous glucose monitor on their participants, they saw a reduction in blood sugar spikes after eating with just 5 minutes of walking each half-hour.  This information is important because the prevalence of high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes continues to increase, and will continue to increase as long as our sedentary lifestyles continue.

Walking for 5 minutes every half hour does amount to about 80 minutes of break time during the work day which is likely not acceptable for most of us at work, including myself; but I do think it is feasible to implement walking, and other forms of movement throughout the day in creative ways. For example, for those of us working from home, investing in a standing desk converter that can raise your computer to a standing height is a great solution to reducing the amount of time spent sitting during the day. Other ideas include incorporating seated and standing stretches each hour, or adding in a few repetitions of standing from the chair and sitting back down to raise the heart rate. You can even try eating lunch standing up, or speaking to colleagues while standing. More popular ideas are taking the stairs, or parking the car at the far end of the lot to incorporate more movement into parts of your day that you already are participating movement. Additionally, the standard recommendation to exercise for 30 minutes per day can be tedious for some, but there are still health benefits associated with breaking up this exercise into two 15-minute periods, or even three 10-minute periods of movement throughout the day.

If you need more convincing, exercise also is associated with improved mood, and who wouldn’t be happy to get a boost of dopamine during the workday? 

So, the next time you are dreading exercising after work or taking the dog for a walk, just remember that health benefits can come from small bouts of exercise. The best place to start is… somewhere! Tomorrow, see if you can add in 5 minutes of movement each hour, and see how great you feel at the end of the day.

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