Being Active for Just 15 Minutes May Offset Full Day of Sitting at Work

Two women stand and talk in an office.
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  • A study of a half-million people found substantial increased risk of death in individuals who sit most of the day at work. The risk was even greater for cardiovascular disease.
  • Individuals who were active at work or intermittently sitting did not have an increased risk.
  • Experts say that more must be done to counteract prolonged occupational sitting to avoid these health risks.

People who sit for long periods of time at work are at higher risk of death, especially from cardiovascular disease, compared with those who are more active throughout the day, suggests a new study of nearly a half-million people.

But there’s good news too: moving intermittently even for as little as 15 minutes throughout the day appears to mitigate the risk, as does regular exercise.

Those findings come from a large retrospective study in Taiwan, published today in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Researchers used data from a biannual health checkup program between 1996-2017 that included both men and women who were twenty years old or older. The average age of participants was thirty-nine.

More sitting linked to 16% increased mortality risk

Participants were asked to respond to questions about their lifestyle, activity level, and how much sitting they did per day at work. Researchers then categorized the participants into three categories based on their “occupational sitting volume,” essentially, how much time at their job was spent sitting: “mostly sitting,” the highest volume of sitting per day, “alternating sitting and nonsitting,” intermittent sitting throughout the day, and “mostly nonsitting,” the most active category.

After controlling for things like BMI, smoking, drinking, sex, and age, the study found that individuals in the “mostly sitting” category had a 16% increased risk of death and a 34% increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease than those in the “mostly nonsitting” group.

“This increased risk was observed across various subgroups, including men, women, younger and older individuals, smokers, and non-smokers. These findings emphasize the need to reduce prolonged sitting in the workplace and increase daily physical activity to mitigate the elevated risks of mortality associated with sitting,” Dr. Wayne Gao, PhD, an Associate Professor at the School of Public Health, Taipei Medical University, Taiwan, and first author of the research, told Healthline.

Reduce risk by cutting sit time

The middle group, the intermittent sitters, on the other hand, did not demonstrate an increased risk of death when compared to the most active group.

Dr. Scott Lear, PhD, a Professor of Health Sciences and Chair in Cardiovascular Prevention Research at Simon Fraser University, is most interested in this middle group

“That middle group, that the intermittent sitting group, was really no different from those who did the least amount of sitting. So it was mainly the ‘mostly sitting’ group that  had increased risks for cardiovascular disease  and early death,” Lear said.

Researchers also found that exercise could offset the risks posed by extended periods of sitting during the day. While there’s no clear formula for how much exercise someone has to do to offset sedentary behavior, the study does offer some insight.

According to Gao, engaging in 15-30 minutes per day of exercise, what they refer to in the study as “leisure time physical activity” (LTPA), is enough to offset the health risks of the “mostly sitting” group. 

The researchers also used another physical activity metric known was Personal Activity Intelligence (PAI) to assess daily exercise. Individuals who scored greater than one-hundred per week using the PAI scale, also mitigated the risks associated with prolonged sitting.

Sitting too much linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer

It’s no secret that Americans spend a lot of time sitting down, and that can lead to a host of health problems. According to the CDC, about one-in-four Americans sit for more than 8 hours per day, and the average US adult sits between 6.5-8 hours per day.

Sitting too much and other sedentary behavior has been linked to increased risk of early death, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. Your mental health and brain can be affected too. Multiple studies have looked back on the increase in sedentary behavior during the Covid-19 pandemic and found a strong association between sitting time and mental health issues like depression and anxiety. 

This year, the National Institute on Aging published a study showing a strong association between sedentary behavior and dementia risk. They found the risk was particularly great for adults who were sedentary for 10 or more hours a day. 

“It has been reported that modern lifestyles have become increasingly sedentary, resulting in prolonged sitting as a regular part of daily life. Scientific literature also agrees on the harmful effects of prolonged sitting,” said Gao.

In 2020, the World Health Organization for the first time included recommendations on sedentary behavior in its physical activity guidelines. They don’t provide specific guidance about sedentary behavior, of which sitting is a major part, other than to recommend that “Adults should limit the amount of time spent being sedentary.” They also recommend including exercise and replacing sedentary activities with physical activity.

Sitting too much? Here’s what to do to improve your health

The study authors advocate for cultural and occupational changes to “denormalize” prolonged occupational sitting, similar to how public health initiatives have worked on smoking.

“Some recommendations include incorporating regular breaks, introducing standing desks, providing designated workplace areas for physical activity, and offering gym membership benefits. These changes can help shift the culture and perception surrounding prolonged occupational sitting,” said Gao

A few simple ways to be more active and sit less at work, Gao recommends:

  • Taking regular breaks to get up and move around. Use an alarm if you need to.
  • During set break periods, take a walk or engage in light physical activity.
  • Find opportunities to be more active, like using stairs or riding a bike to work.
  • Exercise or take part in physical activity during your free time.
  • Join a company-sponsored sports team.

Lear also supports initiatives to get people more active, but admits: “We’re not going to get away from sitting.”

Although companies could use money to pay for things like standing desks or treadmills in the office, he believes those are probably inefficient ways to spend money and reduce sedentary behavior. Instead, he agrees that individuals should be more aware of how much time they spend sitting during the day and actively make time to stand up and move around, even if that means setting an alarm every thirty minutes.

“If we can encourage people to get up every 20 or 30 minutes, do something other than sitting, like moving around, that’s an easier message to get across and easier, more feasible for people than to say, ‘Oh, don’t sit anymore,’” he said.

The bottom line

Extended periods of sitting at work are linked to increased risk of death in a new study of a half-million people.

Prolonged sitting and sedentary behavior have become much more common and are associated with numerous serious health problems, like cardiovascular disease.

Exercise can help to offset the risks posed by prolonged sitting.

Finding ways to sit less while at work, like taking active breaks, are an important part of reducing the risks caused by sedentary behavior.

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