Like many of us, I follow the CDC guideline of exercising at least 30 minutes every day. I fill the time by walking my dog, following a workout routine on YouTube, or riding a stationary bike, and I always feel better when I’m done. However, I can’t help but wonder if that half hour is truly counteracting all the time I spend sitting. My hips, back, and shoulders still ache at the end of a long workday, and my hip flexors feel tight.
Curious, I dove into the research and found the short answer: 30 minutes of daily exercise does not cancel out an entire day of sitting. Still, adding more movement to your daily routine can help counter the effects of a sedentary lifestyle.
What the Research Says About Sitting
We already know that sitting for long periods of time is not good for us. Doctors and physical therapists note that it causes poor circulation and can weaken your large leg and gluteal muscles. If you are over 50, having weakened leg muscles makes you more likely to fall and injure yourself, and sitting for long periods can shorten your hip flexors, which can lead to problems in your hip joints. Also, poor posture may cause the discs in your spine to compress more than they should and accelerate their degeneration. But how does a sedentary lifestyle affect your longevity?
A large body of research confirms that sitting for long periods of time is detrimental to our long-term health. A recent study published in JAMA Cardiology which followed over 100,000 participants found that sitting for eight or more hours per day correlated with a higher risk of death and cardiovascular disease. By contrast, sitting for less than four hours daily and exercising each day significantly reduced those risks.
Another study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2021 looked at the benefits of 30 minutes of daily exercise. After following over 130,000 participants for about 14 years, the researchers learned that half an hour of exercise decreased the risk of death by up to 80 percent in people who spent less than seven hours sitting. However, 30 minutes of exercise had less of a positive effect on those who spent seven to 11 hours sitting, and it had no positive effect on people who spent over 11 hours sitting.
So, if you spend less than seven hours a day sitting, 30 minutes of exercise might be enough. But the more hours you spend sedentary, the more physical activity you will need to counteract that sitting time.
How Much Exercise You Need
Here’s what the researchers recommend: If you have to work for eight hours a day at a desk, you should do about an hour of moderate to rigorous physical activity daily. When you are not working, don’t sit and watch TV or scroll on your phone! Instead, get in two to four hours of light activity before and after work.
Here are a few ways to ramp up your activity:
- Invest in a treadmill and put it in the TV room, so you can walk while watching your favorite shows.
- Take your pup out for a longer walk each morning, or do some housework before work.
- After you complete a project or a big task, take five or 10 minutes to stretch or do squats. (Taking five minutes every hour to stretch is useful too, but many people find this difficult to maintain because it breaks their concentration.)
- While cooking dinner, use the cooking time to perform a quick kitchen workout.
- Invest in a standing desk. Standing isn’t as beneficial as walking and may lead to foot pain without the right shoes, but it will help you work on your balance and posture.
On the weekends, dedicate more time to physical activity. Go on longer walks and, if you can, ramp up your pace for about 20 minutes. If you aren’t interested in walking, sign up for a weekend dance, yoga, or water aerobics class. The more you move your body, the greater your investment will be in your long-term health.