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Is sitting too long bad for your health?

Lesley Dobson / 06 January 2021

Sitting for too long is bad for your health and low-impact activities don’t cancel out the health hazards. However, by putting a little more energy into your exercise you may be able to cancel out the negatives.

Mature couple laughing and walking in the sun
Swap two minutes an hour of sitting for walking for better health

When scientists at the University of Utah School of Medicine looked at how much extra activity would make up for too much sitting, they found that swapping two minutes of sitting for two minutes of low activity – standing – didn’t cancel out the effects of spending two minutes on the sofa.

However, swapping two minutes of sitting for two minutes of light activity each hour, such as walking, made a difference to the length of life among people who spent more than half of their day sitting down. Trading off two minutes of sitting for walking, cleaning or light gardening each hour, was linked to a 33 per cent lower risk of dying.

Read our guide to getting fit without going to the gym

Lead author, Srinivasan Beddhu M.D., professor of internal medicine, explained that while it’s clear that we use energy to exercise, strolling and other light activities use energy too.

Even short walks can add up to a lot when you repeat them many times in the course of a week. “Based on these results we would recommend adding two minutes of walking each hour in combination with normal activities, which should include 2.5 hours of moderate exercise each week,” says Professor Beddhu.

Moderate exercise strengthens the heart, muscles and bones, and confers health benefits that low and light intensity activities can’t. If it has been a while since you did any exercise, even walking for two minutes may be a challenge. Start gently, perhaps walking in your home, from one room to another (making sure there are no wires, loose rugs or other obstacles in the way). If you are unsteady on your feet, and walking outside in your garden, or for a short distance down the road for the first time in months:

  • Take someone with you
  • Wear well-fitting shoes
  • Don’t overdo it

If you have health problems which may make walking or light gardening difficult, check with your doctor whether it is a good idea to do this exercise.

This research used data from National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), to study whether longer periods of low intensity activities, for instance standing, and light intensity activities, such as casual walking, could lengthen the lives of people who are sedentary for more than half their walking hours. These findings were published in Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology (CJASN).

If you are comfortable with this level of exercise, and don’t have any serious health issues, you could slowly increase the amount of exercise you do each day. The emphasis here is on slowly. If you or your walking partner feel unwell during or after walking, and your heart rate or breathing is faster than normal, or you are having problems breathing, your should call 911 for emergency care.

Need to talk to a GP from the comfort of your own home? Saga Health Insurance customers can talk to a qualified, practising UK GP 24 hours a day by phone. Find out more about our GP service.


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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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