We’ve heard it before — sitting can kill you.
A new study, though, suggests that it’s more than just a matter of how many hours you spend being inactive during the day.
How long you sit still before moving around affects your health, too.
Exercising or working out doesn’t seem to undo the damage done by hours spent being inactive, either.
So, given that many of us sit for a living… and during our commute… and at home… is there anything we can do about it?
Sitting increases risk of dying early
In the new study, published this month in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers followed almost 8,000 people aged 45 years or older for an average of 4 years.
During this time, 340 of these people died.
Researchers found that people who spent more of their waking hours being sedentary had a greater risk of dying early — from any cause — compared with those who moved more during the day.
This is also known as “all-cause mortality.”
In addition, people who were inactive for one or two hours at a stretch were more likely to die early from any cause than those who took frequent breaks from sitting — even if their total sedentary time was the same.
The all-cause mortality rate was almost two times higher among the longest sitters — people with the longest total sedentary time and frequent sedentary periods of at least 60 minutes — compared to those who moved more and more often during the day.
Researchers used hip-mounted activity monitors to measure people’s sedentary time during waking hours. Measurements were done over seven days.
On average, people were inactive for 77 percent of the waking hours — about 12 hours a day.
The activity monitors only measured whether people were moving, so researchers couldn’t tell whether a sedentary person was sitting, lying down, or standing still.
Study participants were all middle-aged or older.
However, Keith Diaz, PhD, lead author of the study and an associate research scientist in the Columbia University Department of Medicine, told Healthline that “we have no reason to suspect that sedentary behavior acts physiologically different for younger adults.”
It’s not clear why being sedentary is harmful.
Some studies, though, suggest that moving more frequently helps the body function better, such as by improving insulin sensitivity and glucose handling.
Exercise may not undo sedentary damage
The link between inactivity and increased risk of all-cause mortality was still there even after researchers took into account people’s age, sex, race, body mass index (BMI), and exercise habits.
Yes, exercise habits.
“Our findings suggested that sedentary time was linked to mortality regardless of one’s moderate-to-vigorous physical activity levels. More rigorous analysis is still needed, but our findings don’t support the idea that exercise can undo the damage of being sedentary,” said Diaz.
So going for a walk after work may not make up for a sedentary lifestyle. Neither will hitting the gym.
Standing desks may not do it, either.
One 2015 review of previous research found that using a standing desk had little effect on health markers like insulin sensitivity, “good” cholesterol, and hip and waist circumference.
That may be because standing doesn’t always mean moving.
Treadmill desks, though, offered more benefits.
Basically, the only cure for inactivity seems to be less inactivity.
The big question is how long, how often, and how intensely do you need to move around during the day?
More research is needed to figure out what combination of activity is most effective at counteracting being sedentary.
In the meantime, Diaz suggested that people get up and move every 30 minutes.
That’s because his study saw less of an increased risk of death for people who were sedentary for shorter than 30 minutes at a time.
You may not even need to do that much.
Other studies have found that just walking for 1–2 minutes every 30 minutes at a light-to-moderate pace can improve your insulin sensitivity.
You could get that by walking to the water cooler or up a couple flights of stairs. Or by pausing your movie at home and walking around the outside of your house.
Boosting your daily activity
Of course, doing more will give you an even bigger health boost.
Sarah Walls, a professional strength and conditioning coach and personal trainer with SAPT Strength & Performance Training, Inc. in Virginia, offers some exercise suggestions for people who can spare five minutes every hour.
For a vigorous break, try a 4-minute Tabata workout — 8 rounds of 20 seconds of intense cardio such as running or jumping rope followed by 10 seconds of rest.
For something a little less intense, try five minutes of body weight squats, pushups, lunges, planks, or wall sits.
Walls suggests setting a timer to go off every 50 minutes, so you can move around for 10 minutes before returning to your desk or movie.
When I’m working, I use an app that freezes my computer for 1 minute every 20 minutes and 5 minutes every hour. This helps me break free of getting lost in my work… and avoid sitting or standing still for too long.
You can even reduce some of the sedentary commute time.
Try biking or walking to work, or parking farther away and walking the rest of the way. Or consider taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
Walls told Healthline that you can also often “adjust your work day to commute during off-peak hours and avoid the longest portion of sitting in the car.”
And don’t forget time spent at home, where it’s easy to fall onto the couch and get stuck there for hours at a time.
“Make a point to identify activities to do at home that you enjoy, and that require some moving around,” Walls said. “Things like walking, gardening, cleaning the house, or playing [active video games on the] Wii.”