By this time, most people who follow news related to physical health and disease-prevention had probably seen the worrying headlines and infographics detailing the harmful effects prolonged sitting has on our bodies. Some studies even suggest that having a desk job is as detrimental as smoking.
What’s even worse is that exercising several times per week seems to be insufficient to reverse the damage kicked off by staying put for too long – on top of regular exercise, many experts also recommend frequent, short bursts of physical activity, such as walking or stretching to break up the hours spent passively sitting at the computer screen.
However, while these recommendations are still sound, a new meta-analysis of 16 studies on the topic, which total over a million participants from around the world, indicates the situation might not be as dire after all.
The research team grouped individuals into four quartiles depending on their level of moderate physical activity, ranging from 5 minutes per day in the bottom group to over 60 minutes in the top. Moderate intensity was defined as equating to walking at 5.6 km/h or cycling at 16 km/h, for example.
Results showed that exercising for 60 to 75 minutes per day, whether in blocks or all in one go, is enough to eliminate the increased risk of early death associated with sitting for over eight hours per day – a level of exertion as many as three in four people were found to fall short of.
Compared to people in the top quartile, those who were the least active were 28% to 59% more likely to die early from cancer, and heart and artery disease – a similar risk to that associated with obesity and smoking. In other words, lack of physical activity is a greater health risk than prolonged sitting.
“For many people who commute to work and have office-based jobs, there is no way to escape sitting for prolonged periods of time. For these people in particular, we cannot stress enough the importance of getting exercise, whether it’s getting out for a walk at lunchtime, going for a run in the morning or cycling to work.
An hour of physical activity per day is the ideal, but if this is unmanageable, then at least doing some exercise each day can help reduce the risk,” said Professor Ulf Ekelund from the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge.
The study was published July 28, 2016 in the leading medical journal Lancet.