By Adam Perlman, MD
The research keeps rolling in: Sitting for long periods of time every day is not good for our bodies. A new study published last month raised the stakes even higher. People who spend the majority of their waking hours sitting are at higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, some forms of cancer, and earlier death.
The study found that even people who exercise vigorously three or more times a week, but are sedentary the rest of the time, are still at risk for all these negative outcomes. It's just not enough to run for 60 minutes if you're sitting for the remaining 15 or so hours of your day.
But that's the doom-and-gloom side of the story. Though a sedentary life can lead to many disease, it alone is not a disease. It's a behavior. And that means it's most definitely one you can change, even if you drive a desk for a living and love watching television at night.
Truth be told, frequent short bursts of activity throughout your day may be more realistic for your schedule. If you have a family and a job, it may make more sense to move a bit on the hour instead of, say, put in a full workout every morning. Mini-workouts might be the movement goal you can hit, rather than the goal that leaves you feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. Here are six ways to get started.
Know how long you're sitting
How much do you sit a day? Find out. Like keeping a food or stress journal, the act of mapping out exactly how you're using your body helps you see more clearly where you need to change. For example, you might find that you get home at 7 p.m. and literally don't stand up more than once or twice for the next four hours.
A plain old pen and notebook journal will do to track this data. It can be as simple as jotting down the time each time you stand, and then calculating the length of sitting intervals. Keep your journal for several days to get a sense of your habits.
Set a 30-minute alarm
For those long stretches of chair time, set an alarm to go off every 30-minutes. At the sound of the bell (or trill or quack or whatever tone you choose), stand up and move around for a few minutes. Seriously, one to three minutes is a common recommendation for how long you need to move. Walk outside, touch your toes, water a plant, physically deliver a message to a colleague, or try some simple stretches.
Make walking appointments and have standing meetings
Need to meet with a colleague or neighbor? Have a walking appointment outside. If the weather won't cooperate, schedule a standing meeting. Comfortable shoes help this habit stick, as does good posture: shoulders down and back, neck straight and pelvis slightly tucked. As a side benefit, walking or standing may keep otherwise long meetings short.
Bring your workout to work
Even a cubicle has enough space for some five-minute strength training. As health writer James Hamblin says in his If Our Bodies Could Talk videos, "It's cool to eat salad and quinoa at your desk, but it's not cool to do exercises there?" Instead of crunching on another power bar, bang out 10 desk pushups or chair dips, then get back to work. Check out this list from Greatist of 33 (!) exercises you can do at your desk sweat-free.
Schedule your movement
Whether it's a set of 5 hamstring curls or a half-hour job, put it in your calendar. Schedule exercise into your daily routine like you do other activities and meetings. It's as important as that dentist appointment or car registration, even if it only lasts for two minutes.
Stand up between episodes
The conventional advice for at-home exercising is to move during television commercial breaks. That holds true, but if you're a Netflix binge-watcher, as so many of us are, you have to find a different measure. Instead, any time the credit roll is your cue to get off the couch and back into your body.
Vigorous activity still needs to be part of your life, of course. Playing tag with the kids on the weekend, getting in a short, high-intensity workout a couple of mornings a week -- anything that gets your blood pumping and lungs working is great. But for the rest of the waking hours, the aim is simply to keep yourself in motion. That's the way you were designed to be.
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