Two Minutes of Walking Each Hour Drastically Improves Health, Study Says

Story at-a-glance -

  • People who walked for two minutes out of every hour spent sitting increased their lifespan by 33 percent
  • Excessive sitting is linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and death from virtually all causes
  • Ideally, try to sit for less than three hours a day; a standing workstation can help with this goal

By Dr. Mercola

Sitting for too long has been found to increase your risk of death from virtually all health problems, from type 2 diabetes and heart disease to cancer and all-cause mortality.

For example, sitting for more than eight hours a day is associated with a 90 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes.1 The average American actually spends nine to 10 hours of their day sitting, and certain occupations, such as telecommunications employees, spend an average of 12 hours sitting each day.2

For many years, exercise was promoted as the solution to this largely sedentary lifestyle. But while exercise, especially short bursts of high-intensity activity, is crucial to optimal health, research suggests it can't counteract the effects of too much sitting.

In fact, chronic sitting has a mortality rate similar to smoking.3 This should be powerful motivation to sit only when necessary, as reducing your hours spent sitting is the best way to avoid the associated health risks.

Researchers from the University of Utah School of Medicine have uncovered another trick that may help reduce the risks for the times when sitting is unavoidable.

Walking for Two Minutes Each Hour May Improve Your Health

For times when you must sit, make a point to get up and walk around for two minutes out of every hour. Those who engaged in such low-intensity activities increased their lifespan by 33 percent, compared to those who did not.4

This is a simple trick that virtually everyone can use to cut back on the ill health effects of sitting. Think of it this way: if you've been sitting down for a full hour, you've sat too long, and the cellular mechanisms involved in the maintenance of your body and health are shutting down.

Dr. James Levine, co-director of the Mayo Clinic and the Arizona State University Obesity Initiative, and author of the book Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It, has dedicated a good part of his career to investigating the health effects of sitting.

His investigations show that when you've been sitting for a long period of time and then get up, a number of molecular cascades occur. For example, within 90 seconds of standing up, the muscular and cellular systems that process blood sugar, triglycerides, and cholesterol—which are mediated by insulin—are activated.

All of these molecular effects are activated simply by carrying your own bodyweight. These cellular mechanisms are also responsible for pushing fuel into your cells and, if done regularly, will radically decrease your risk of diabetes and obesity. In short, at the molecular level, your body was designed to be active and on the move all day long.

When you stop moving for extended periods of time, it's like telling your body it's time to shut down and prepare for death… Dr. Levine actually recommends that you be up and moving for at least 10 minutes out of every hour.

Strive to Sit for Less Than Three Hours a Day

Over the last year, I've been able to reduce my normal 12 to 14 hours of daily sitting to under one hour. And I noticed one amazing thing: the back pain I've struggled with for many years simply disappeared. It would normally start after I'd walk or stand for more than 30 minutes, but since I reduced my sitting the pain disappeared.

I had previously tried four different chiropractors, posture exercises, Foundation Training, ab work, inversion tables, standing up every 15 minutes to stretch, and strength training. But nothing would touch it, other than to radically reduce my sitting.

I believe this is a more powerful strategy than simply trying to walk for a few minutes each hour, as research shows that reducing the average time you spend sitting down to less than three hours a day could increase your life expectancy by two years.5

On the other hand, each hour spent sitting and watching television after the age of 25 reduces your life expectancy by nearly 22 minutes.6 Remember, research shows excessive sitting is associated with an increased risk of dying from any cause as well as an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. And this is regardless of physical activity.7 As reported by CNN:8

"Researchers from Toronto came to this conclusion after analyzing 47 studies of sedentary behavior. They adjusted their data to incorporate the amount someone exercises and found that the sitting we typically do in a day still outweighs the benefit we get from exercise."

A Standing Desk Can Drastically Cut Back on Hours Spent Sitting

You can't avoid sitting during your commute, but if you work in an office you can slash your time spent sitting by using a standing workstation. We are in the process of providing all our employees at Mercola.com standing desk options. If you have a sit-down job I would strongly encourage you to present this information to your employer and get a stand-up desk.

A new study published in the journal Preventive Medicine analyzed 23 active desk studies (which includes both stand-up desks and treadmill desks) and found both reduced sedentary time and improved mood.9 I believe standing workstations are preferable to treadmill desks, however, as more than 24,000 people are treated for treadmill-related injuries each year.10 SurveyMonkey CEO David Goldberg passed away tragically recently from a severe head trauma sustained after slipping from a treadmil… so using one while being distracted with work isn’t ideal.

A far better option is to use a standing workstation while at the office, and then use a pedometer to be sure you’re walking for 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day. That being said, the study revealed the following physical benefits from standing desks:11

  • Standing desks boosted heart rate by about eight beats per minute, while treadmill desks increased it by 12 beats per minute
  • Standing desks may boost HDL (good) cholesterol
  • Using a standing desk for three months led to weight loss

Standing Desks Boost Performance and Cognitive Functioning

The benefits of switching to a standing desk are not only physical in nature. Some of the best benefits are actually related to your psychological health. As Fast Company reported:12

“In one seven-week study of standing desk use, participants reported less fatigue, tension, confusion, and depression, and more vigor, energy, focus, and happiness—and when they went back to their old desks, their overall mood returned to baseline levels.”

Even better, the standing workstations appeared to have little negative impact on employees’ ability to carry out their jobs. For instance, a sit-stand workstation lead to no difference in characters typed per minute or typing errors.13

Are You Ready to Give Up Being Sedentary?

Committing to sitting less is more of a mindset than a physical feat. It will take some getting used to, but you’ll find standing and moving around feels every bit as natural, and, really, even more so, than sitting.

If you work in an office, converting to a standing workstation will be important, but you should also strive to stand or move around while you watch TV, talk on the phone, and any other time possible.

In addition, moving is important too, not just standing still. In the featured study, for instance, those who stood up for two minutes an hour did not reap the benefits that those who walked for two minutes did.

I recommend using a pedometer, or better yet, one of the newer wearable fitness trackers that can also give you feedback on your sleeping patterns, which is another important aspect of good health. At first, you may be surprised to realize just how little you move each day.

Setting a goal of 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day (which is just over three to five miles, or 6-9 kilometers) can go a long way toward getting more movement and less sitting into your life. This should be over and above any exercise regimen you may have.

I personally am doing about 14,000-15,000 steps a day. The only way I can get this many steps in is to walk for 90 minutes. Tracking your steps can also show you how simple and seemingly minor changes to the way you move around at work can add up. Other simple ways to increase your physical movement and avoid sitting down at work and elsewhere include:

  • Organize the layout of your office space in such a way that you have to stand up to reach oft-used files, the telephone, or your printer, rather than having everything within easy reach.
  • Use an exercise ball for a chair. Unlike sitting in a chair, sitting on an exercise ball engages your core muscles and helps improve balance and flexibility. Occasional bouncing can also help your body interact with gravity to a greater degree than sitting on a stationary chair. But this is a concession and it is still sitting, so standing would be a better option.
  • Alternatively, use an upright wooden chair with no armrest, which will force you to sit up straight, and encourage shifting your body more frequently than a cushy office chair.
  • Set a timer to remind you to stand up and move about for at least two to 10 minutes each hour. You can either walk, stand, or take the opportunity to do a few simple exercises by your desk. For an extensive list of videos demonstrating such exercises, please see my previous article, "Intermittent Movement Benefits Your Health. Here's How to Get More of It into Your Work Day."
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