Research shows people who sit for long periods of time at work have a 16% higher risk of death

Research shows people who sit for long periods of time at work have a 16% higher risk of death

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Tired of sitting at your desk all day? Turns out, it’s bad for your health, too, according to a new study published online in JAMA Online.

People who sit for long periods of time at work have a 16% higher risk of death from all causes and a 34% higher risk of death from all causes Mortality from cardiovascular disease. The researchers estimate that to offset the increased risk, people who sit regularly at work would have to engage in an additional 15 to 30 minutes of physical activity each day to reduce the risk compared with people who sit less frequently.

As I sit here typing this, I wonder what I should make of these findings. What steps can desk-bound employees take to reduce the increased health risks associated with inactivity? Is it better to do a little exercise every weekday, or should I save a big chunk of money on the weekends? What about those who are already taking medications to treat obesity, diabetes, and other chronic conditions? What should they do?

I turned to CNN Health expert Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and adjunct associate professor at George Washington University. She previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner.

CNN: Were you surprised by the results of this study? For people who primarily sit at work, all-cause mortality is 16% higher and cardiovascular disease mortality is 34% higher?

AS Dr. Wen Lina: I’m not surprised by the takeaways from the study, although the magnitude of the effects is large and certainly should be a call to action.

We’ve known for years that sitting for long periods of time has negative health effects—it increases the risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular death. Research also shows that even light activity to break up long periods of sitting can reduce this risk. A 2023 study from Columbia University found that people who engaged in just five minutes of light activity every 30 minutes reduced their post-meal blood sugar spikes by nearly 60%. Those who exercised for one minute every 30 minutes experienced a drop in blood pressure.

Importantly, the exercise people performed for this study was not intensive. Instead, it’s a slow walk on a treadmill at 1.9 miles per hour, which is slower than most people walk.

Another 2023 study found that replacing 30 minutes of sedentary activity with very light activity, such as walking or standing, improved key measures such as body mass index (BMI) and cholesterol levels. The benefits of high-intensity exercise are greater, but the key is that short bursts of light activity can also make a difference.

This new JAMA Network Open study is significant because it involved so many participants (more than 480,000 people) that the researchers followed them for an average of nearly 13 years. They were also adjusted for gender, age, education, smoking and drinking status, and body mass index. I think it’s noteworthy that they found such a significant difference in all-cause mortality, particularly cardiovascular disease mortality.

Imagine if there was a drug that significantly reduced your chances of dying from a heart attack. It’s sure to be a hit! Or the other way around – what if certain lifestyle habits increase people’s chances of dying from heart disease or stroke? There are a lot of things people can do to change this habit, just like they should do when sitting for long periods of time at work.

CNN: What steps can desk-bound workers take to reduce the increased health risks of inactivity?

arts: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise per week. This equates to about 22 minutes per day, or about 30 minutes per session if people exercised five times a week. Ideally, people can set aside time to briskly walk, jog, ride a bike, exercise on the elliptical or otherwise spend at least the same amount of time exercising each week.

Many desk workers already participate in some version of these activities, but they can work to increase the duration and intensity of the activities. Instead of taking one walk around the neighborhood before dinner, how about two walks around the neighborhood? Instead of going to the gym twice a week, why not go to the gym three times a week? Could they park a few blocks further and commute faster by walking? These small changes can add up.

This doesn’t actually have to be a huge change: According to the research I cited above, doing small amounts of light physical activity during work hours can improve health. These are sometimes called “sports snacks.” Some things people can do include getting up every 30 minutes or every hour to stretch or walk around the office—or for those who work from home, their own home, apartment hallway, or yard. They can lift a plank or do jumping jacks. Those with limited mobility can still perform stretching exercises such as side bends and twists in a chair. Breathing exercises that deeply engage the diaphragm can also help.

Courtesy of Dana Santas

Mobility coach Dana Santas demonstrates some exercises that can help you combat the negative effects of sitting for long periods of time, whether you work from home or in an office.

CNN: What about people who don’t get much exercise at all and can’t immediately hit 150 minutes a week?

arts: There is good news. A study published last year found that just half the recommended amount of exercise had a significant impact on improving health. While those who met the 150 minutes per week threshold benefited most, just 75 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week (that’s about 11 minutes per day) reduced the risk of premature death by 23%. It also reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The most important thing for me is that some exercise is better than no exercise. The more the better if possible, but those currently living a sedentary lifestyle shouldn’t be deterred. Everyone needs to start where they are and consider their current fitness level, time constraints, type of work, etc.

If someone is already active, they can increase the frequency and intensity of their workouts. But if someone isn’t, they can start with the basics and start walking around the neighborhood slowly. Those pressed for time can try combining a walk with a phone call. They can perform basic flexibility and strength exercises, including those that don’t require any additional equipment. They can incorporate “exercise snacks” into their workday. Maybe they could set an alarm to get up and walk around and stretch every hour. Simple behavior changes, when done consistently, add up over time.

CNN: Is it better to do a little exercise during the week or save a big chunk of money on the weekend?

arts: Definitely the former. Prolonged periods of inactivity can pose health risks. Ideally, people can do both and engage in more intensive exercise—for example, cycling on the weekends and running during the week—in addition to getting up more frequently during the day to break sedentary habits. But those who engage in vigorous exercise only once a week should not assume that this is enough to offset the damage caused by sitting for long periods of time during the week.

CNN: What about those who are already taking medications to treat obesity, diabetes, and other chronic conditions? Should they heed these recommendations, too?

arts: Yes. Medications cannot replace lifestyle changes. People with chronic illnesses should certainly consult with their healthcare provider to make sure an exercise regimen is safe and appropriate for them, but improving health cannot be achieved with medication alone. Fitness and physical activity are key components of a healthy life.

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