Sitting around doing nothing used to seem like one of the safest activities possible. Then a few years ago scientists discovered that sitting all day causes a cascade of harmful metabolic changes that together increase your odds of meeting an early end. Even regular workouts didn't counteract the ill effects of having your butt in a chair all workday. Suddenly, sitting became public health enemy number one.
These days coronavirus is clearly public health enemy number one, but the lockdowns and social distancing rules the virus has necessitated have definitely made our inactivity problem worse. If you can barely leave your house, how can you possibly avoid the negative physical changes associated with sitting?
New research offers a hopeful answer to this question, finding that tiny bursts of intense activity are enough to protect your body from the worst effects of your suddenly couch-bound lifestyle.
Could 20 seconds an hour of activity lengthen your life?
The study, which was conducted by scientists at the University of Texas at Austin and published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, closely observed eight young, healthy volunteers as they sat around. On the first day of the experiment they simply lounged for six hours. On the second day they got up from their lazing each hour and engaged in five rounds of four seconds of intense exercise on a specialized exercise bike.
Twenty seconds total exercise an hour sounds like nothing, but the data showed it made a big difference to the subjects' bodies. The next day they burned more fat and showed lower levels of triglycerides in their blood. In short, they didn't exhibit the usual ill effects of having sat all day.
This study is small, but it's still both hopeful and relevant. "The results suggest that breaking up sitting with frequent, intense and extremely abbreviated exercise 'can undo' some of the adverse effects of being sedentary," explains Gretchen Reynolds in the New York Times.
And while the study used a special type of bike developed by sports scientists, the researchers feel similar results are obtainable with everyday home exercise equipment. However, you may have to work for a few more seconds to reach the same level of intensity, depending on what type of exercise you choose. If you want to replicate these results, your goal should be to get your heart pumping to its maximum as quickly as possible.
These caveats aside, the research still suggests an actionable takeaway for business owners and others who are concerned about how much sitting they've been doing these last weeks.
"When you find yourself sitting for most of the day, try to rise frequently and move, preferably intensely, as often during the day as possible and for as many seconds as you can manage," Reynolds concludes. That sounds doable.