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Short walks to break up the workday can benefit overall health. Lauren Lee/Stocksy
  • Researchers say 5-minute walks every half-hour can counteract some of the health hazards of prolonged sitting.
  • They add that shorter walks and even standing can have health benefits.
  • Experts say you can get in your exercise during the workday by walking around the building, climbing stairs, or doing deep knee bends.

A new study from Columbia University in New York reports that just 5 minutes of walking every half-hour can offset some of the most harmful effects of sitting for long periods.

The research team, led by Keith Diaz, PhD, an associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, tested five different exercise “snacks.”

They included 1 minute of walking after every 30 minutes of sitting, 1 minute after 60 minutes, 5 minutes every 30 minutes, 5 minutes every 60 minutes, and no walking.

“If we hadn’t compared multiple options and varied the frequency and duration of the exercise, we would have only been able to provide people with our best guesses of the optimal routine,” Diaz said in a statement.

There’s plenty of research that concludes that prolonged sitting, like that done in office settings, is a health hazard, even for those who exercise regularly.

Doctors advise adults to move more and sit less.

The question then becomes how to mitigate all that sitting while it happens.

And, according to the new study’s researchers, there hasn’t been much research giving office workers a satisfactory answer.

The new study was small – only 11 adults participated in Diaz’s laboratory.

Participants sat in an ergonomic chair for 8 hours, rising only for their prescribed exercise period of treadmill walking or a bathroom break.

Researchers said they made sure each participant didn’t over-exercise or under-exercise. They also periodically measured the study subjects’ blood pressure and blood sugar (key indicators of cardiovascular health).

Participants were allowed to work on a laptop, read, and use their phones during the sessions and were given standardized meals.

Researchers reported that 5 minutes of walking every 30 minutes had the best results. It was the only amount that significantly lowered both blood sugar and blood pressure.

The walking regimen dramatically affected how participants responded to large meals, reducing blood sugar spikes by 58% compared with sitting all day, the researchers reported.

Taking a walking break every 30 minutes for 1 minute also provided modest benefits for blood sugar levels throughout the day.

Walking every 60 minutes (either for 1 minute or 5 minutes) provided no benefit.

All amounts of walking significantly reduced blood pressure by 4 to 5 mmHg compared with sitting all day.

“This is a sizeable decrease, comparable to the reduction you would expect from exercising daily for six months,” Diaz said.

All the walking regimens, except walking 1 minute every hour, significantly decreased participants’ fatigue and showed mood improvements.

None of the walking regimens, however, influenced cognition.

Experts say even small amounts of activity during the workday add up

“This study shows that even small improvements in physical activity can have impacts on blood sugar and blood pressure,” said Dr. Yu-Ming Ni, a cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in California.

“Remember that small changes done over years can have a lasting impact on health,” Ni told Healthline. “It may not seem like much to walk for five minutes every hour of desk work, but this can add up over the workday.”

“For example, in an eight-hour workday, this amounts to 40 minutes of physical activity,” Ni noted. “Add in a 15- minute walk during your lunch break, and you suddenly have almost an hour of additional physical activity each workday. With these small changes, anyone can make a difference in their health, one walking break at a time.”

Even standing instead of sitting makes a difference, according to Dr. Theodore Strange, the chairperson of medicine at Staten Island University Hospital in New York.

“Sitting for prolonged periods of time affects one’s general health in many small ways,” Strange told Healthline. “Standing and walking have many more benefits to good health. Just standing at one’s desk and/or walking burns more calories over a day. This obviously helps with trying to maintain weight.”

Strange said standing and walking increase blood flow, especially to the legs, thereby reducing the chances of stasis and swelling. It also helps metabolize sugar and fat and can help with breathing.

“Also, sitting for prolonged periods may lead to back issues and pain,” Strange said. “Keeping one’s muscles, ligaments, and joints looser and stretched is another benefit of standing/walking as opposed to sitting – which helps with myalgias and stiffness.

Perry Mykleby is a certified personal trainer with an orthopedic exercise certification. Mykleby told Healthline about some ways to mitigate all that sitting is to get a standing desk, even one with a treadmill accessory.

“Take activity breaks at regular intervals,” Mykleby said. “Rather than sitting for long stretches of time, set reminders for yourself to stand up and move around. This might include things like doing deep knee bends (or my personal favorite, Hindu squats). Squats in and out of the desk chair are also an option.”

Mykleby said offices with “cube cities” can make exercise a bit awkward.

“Find excuses to walk around the building, climb stairs, anything that makes sense that doesn’t detract from you doing a good job at what you’re being paid to do,” Mykleby told Healthline.