The next time your smart watch buzzes at you to move, you might want to take it seriously. Why? Americans are sitting for more hours of the day than they ever have, according to a July 2019 study in JAMA Network Open — and that's bad news for our health.
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Researchers pulled data from surveys on adults ages 18 or older over the span of eight years, evaluating leisure-time, work-related and transportation-related activity. Their main finding: It's time for Americans to take a stand, literally.
What's So Bad About Sitting?
When you sit, you use less energy than when you're standing or walking. So, when you sit for extended periods of time, it can affect your activity tolerance and put you at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome and deep-vein thrombosis, according to a January 2015 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
In terms of medical consequences, it's almost as bad as smoking, says Gerardo Miranda-Comas, MD, an assistant professor for the Department of Rehabilitation and Human Performance at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
"You should take short breaks from sitting — about every 20 minutes — which will prevent muscle fatigue and neck and back pain," he says. "Plus, a non-sedentary lifestyle can contribute to decreased risk of depression, body image issues and breast and colon cancers."
How Much Activity Should We Be Getting?
Adults should be engaging in at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
But even meeting these minimums can't totally erase the dangers that come with sitting most of the day.
The problem? Sedentary time is increasing because of things like our increased accessibility to mobile devices and the promotion of binge-watching, says Dr. Miranda-Comas. But the biggest reason people don't move more is lack of time. "People simply don't have time due to work or family responsibilities," he says.
So what's the solution? Get smart about breaking up your sitting time throughout the day with these simple, time-efficient tips you can use during your commute, working hours and time at home. And remember: Small changes can make a big difference in the long run.
During Your Commute...
1. Take the Extra Step
Start and end the day on good footing. If you drive to work, park farther away in your office parking lot. If you take public transportation, walk to the next bus or train stop or even get off one stop earlier to log extra steps, says Dr. Miranda-Comas. Even better: If you're close enough, choose to bike or walk to work.
2. Give Up Your Seat
Your commute is a solid time to stay active if you put in a little work. Next time you're on the bus or train, choose to stand instead of plopping into a seat. Better yet, give up your seat to someone who is elderly or disabled (you'll feel better about it, too!).
3. Take More Water Breaks
Even if your work kitchen is close to your desk, choose to fill your cup at the coffee maker or water fountain that's farthest from you, suggests Dr. Miranda-Comas. It might also be helpful to use a small cup to drink water — instead of a large jug — so you have to walk back and forth to the kitchen to fill up frequently.
4. Walk to Lunch
We all need to eat, so if your budget allows you to splurge on a weekday lunch, opt for a lunch spot that's slightly farther away from your work. The walk back afterward can also help improve blood sugar control, according to a 2013 study in the journal Diabetes Care.
5. Get a Standing Desk
The first step to going from sitting to moving is to stand. If time doesn't allow for frequent walk breaks at work, a standing desk can be an alternative to keep your muscles working. Ask for a standing desk and alternate times standing and sitting throughout the day.
6. Do P.E. on Your Pee Break
Every time you have to use the restroom during the day, choose the large stall and do short bursts of activity, such as 10 squats, says Dr. Miranda-Comas.
Another option to workin more steps: Use the restroom on another floor in your building so you have to take the stairs.
7. Set Up a Reward System
Every time you complete a certain task, take a lap around the office. You can even recruit a coworker to be your walking buddy, and you can each hold the other accountable. It can act as a chain effect, says Dr. Miranda-Comas. So, who knows — maybe you'll soon have the entire office walking off those afternoon meetings!
Read more: Calories Burned Standing vs. Sitting
8. Lean on Technology
Most smart watches or fitness trackers have a "move" notification every hour, or you can customize the timing for more frequent reminders. You can also use a phone timer, calendar invite or even a Slack reminder to act as a friendly nudge to get in more steps.
9. Take TV Breaks
If you're watching a 30-minute TV show, do sit-ups or air squats during commercials breaks. If you don't have commercial breaks, stop the show halfway through for a five-minute activity break — even stretching counts!
Stretching can keep the muscles flexible and helps maintain a range of motion in the joints, according to Harvard Health Publishing. If you're watching an hour-long show — regardless of who is about to get killed off or what break-up is about to happen — press pause at the 30-minute mark and do a few shake-out movements.
10. Go for Weekend Walks
Get in the habit of taking walks on the weekend. Start with intervals of walk, rest, walk, says Dr. Miranda-Comas. "Walk for 10 minutes, then take a short break, then pick up again with another 10 minutes of walking," he suggests. Then build your way up to a comfortable time (and distance) that works with your weekend timetable.
If you live in an area that's walking-friendly, plan to ditch the car or bus and walk to the farmer's market, the gym or even to brunch and back.
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- JAMA Network Open: "Trends in Adherence to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans for Aerobic Activity and Time Spent on Sedentary Behavior Among US Adults, 2007 to 2016"
- Annals of Internal Medicine: "Sedentary Time and Its Association With Risk for Disease Incidence, Mortality, and Hospitalization in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis"
- Diabetes Care: "Three 15-min Bouts of Moderate Postmeal Walking Significantly Improves 24-h Glycemic Control in Older People at Risk for Impaired Glucose Tolerance"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The importance of stretching"
- Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
- Annals of Internal Medicine: Sedentary Time and Its Association With Risk for Disease Incidence, Mortality, and Hospitalization in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis
- American Diabetes Association:Three 15-min Bouts of Moderate Postmeal Walking Significantly Improves 24-h Glycemic Control in Older People at Risk for Impaired Glucose Tolerance
- Harvard Medical School: The Importance of Stretching