You know that prolonged sitting—a staple of modern-day life—is hazardous to your health, even if you exercise regularly. And you most likely share this information with your clients and urge them to spend less time sitting and more time moving.

But exactly how often do we need to get up from our chairs? And for how long?

Few studies have compared multiple options to come up with a response to the question many people want answered: What is the least amount of activity needed to counteract the health impact of a workday filled with sitting?

A new study by Columbia University exercise physiologists may have the answer. They found that just five minutes of walking every half hour during periods of prolonged sitting can offset some of the most harmful effects.

Comparing Multiple “Exercise Snacks”

Unlike other studies that test one or two activity options, this study, which was led by Keith Diaz, PhD, associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, tested five different exercise “snacks”:

  • One minute of light-intensity walking after every 30 minutes of sitting
  • One minute of light-intensity walking every 60 minutes
  • Five minutes of light-intensity walking every 30 minutes
  • Five minutes of light-intensity walking every 60 minutes
  • No walking at all

“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 says.

Each of the 11 adults who participated in the study came to Diaz’s laboratory, where participants sat in an ergonomic chair for eight hours, rising only for their prescribed exercise snack of treadmill walking or a bathroom break. Researchers kept an eye on each participant to ensure they did not over- or under-exercise and periodically measured the participants’ blood pressure and blood sugar, both of which are key indicators of cardiovascular health. Participants were allowed to work on a laptop, read and use their phones during the sessions and were provided standardized meals.

The optimal amount of movement, the researchers found, was five minutes of walking every 30 minutes. This was the only amount that significantly lowered both blood sugar and blood pressure. In addition, this walking regimen had a dramatic effect on how the participants responded to large meals, reducing blood sugar spikes by 58% compared with sitting all day.

What the Research Means to Health and Exercise Professionals

For years, it seems, people have talked about the pursuit of a “magic pill” that would offer the benefits of exercise. As it turns out, periodic walking “snacks” may offer all the benefits of that elusive pill in a pretty digestible form.

For example, do you have clients who have type 1 diabetes or find it challenging to control their blood sugar levels? The researchers found that taking a walking break every 30 minutes for just one minute provided modest benefits for blood sugar levels throughout the day, while walking every 60 minutes (either for one minute or five minutes) did not show the same effect.

What about clients who would benefit from lowering their blood pressure levels? In this study, the researchers concluded that 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,” says Diaz.

Do you or your clients struggle with mood or fatigue? The researchers periodically measured participants’ mood, fatigue and cognitive performance during the testing. All walking regimens, except walking for one minute every hour, led to significant decreases in fatigue and significant improvements in mood (none of the walking regimens influenced cognition).

“The effects on mood and fatigue are important,” Diaz says. “People tend to repeat behaviors that make them feel good and that are enjoyable.”

So, how does the Pomodoro Technique figure into this? Developed in the late 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, the pomodoro technique (named for his mother’s tomato-shaped kitchen timer) is a time-management approach that uses timed intervals to help maximize focus and productivity. Just as recovery periods are essential to an effective workout, timed breaks to rest and reset between or during work tasks can enhance productivity. Work periods generally last 25 minutes, with five-minute breaks in between. Longer breaks are taken after four work periods.

Exactly how those rest periods are used is up to the individual, but this study suggests that using them for a brief walk around the office or neighborhood could be an especially effective use of that time. If walking is less practical, stretching, body-weight exercises or calisthenics are good options for getting up out of that chair.

Desktop and phone-based apps make it easy to set timers and reminders to move. If your clients struggle with not getting up and moving around enough during the workday, the Pomodoro Technique could be an easy and effective solution.

The Columbia researchers are currently testing 25 different doses of walking on health outcomes and testing a wider variety of people: Participants in the current study were in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and most did not have diabetes or high blood pressure.

“What we know now is that for optimal health, you need to move regularly at work, in addition to a daily exercise routine,” says Diaz. “While that may sound impractical, our findings show that even small amounts of walking spread through the workday can significantly lower your risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses.”


Expand Your Knowledge


Postural Problems of Prolonged Sitting and Corrective Exercises

You can help your desk-bound clients by first understanding what sitting does to the body and why these clients need to be trained in a different manner than other clients. This course outlines the common problems associated with prolonged sitting and presents corrective exercises that can be immediately implemented into training sessions. By correcting your clients’ postural problems, you will empower them to feel better and get the most out of their training.