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How Much Exercise Offsets a Day of Sitting?

It is well known that prolonged sitting negatively impacts health, but can we outrun a bad day of hard work?

It is well known that prolonged sitting negatively impacts health, but determining the appropriate amount of exercise to counterbalance these effects is crucial.

Research indicates that approximately 30-40 minutes of daily exercise at a sweat-inducing level may suffice.

Engaging in up to 40 minutes of “moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity” each day is recommended to mitigate the adverse effects of 10 hours of sedentary behavior. Even minimal activity, such as standing, offers some health benefits.

These findings are based on a 2020 meta-analysis that reviewed nine previous studies involving 44,370 participants across four countries, all of whom used fitness trackers.

The analysis revealed an increased risk of mortality among those with sedentary lifestyles, correlating with decreased time spent in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

“In active individuals doing about 30-40 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity, the association between high sedentary time and risk of death is not significantly different from those with low amounts of sedentary time.”

In essence, reasonably intensive activities such as cycling, brisk walking, or gardening can significantly lower the risk of early death associated with prolonged sitting. This correlation is evident in data collected from thousands of individuals.

While meta-analyses like this one often involve synthesizing data from various studies with different volunteers, timescales, and conditions, the advantage of this particular research lies in its use of objective data from wearables, rather than self-reported information.

This study was published alongside the World Health Organization’s 2020 Global Guidelines on Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour, compiled by 40 scientists across six continents. The British Journal of Sports Medicine also released a special edition featuring both the study and the updated guidelines.

“As these guidelines emphasize, all physical activity counts and any amount of it is better than none.”

Emmanuel Stamatakis – University of Sydney in Australia.

Health can still be protected and the harmful effects of physical inactivity offset.

Research based on fitness trackers aligns with the 2020 WHO guidelines, recommending 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity weekly to counter sedentary behavior.

Suggestions for increasing activity include walking up the stairs instead of taking the lift, playing with children and pets, participating in yoga or dancing, doing household chores, walking, and cycling. Starting with smaller amounts of activity is encouraged if 30-40 minutes daily seems challenging.

Making recommendations across all ages and body types is complex, but the 40-minute activity guideline fits with previous research. As more data becomes available, better strategies for maintaining health despite extended periods of desk work will be developed.

“Although the new guidelines reflect the best available science, there are still some gaps in our knowledge.”

Emmanuel Stamatakis – University of Sydney in Australia.

“We are still not clear, for example, where exactly the bar for ‘too much sitting’ is. But this is a fast-paced field of research, and we will hopefully have answers in a few years’ time.”


Objectives To describe new WHO 2020 guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour.

Methods The guidelines were developed in accordance with WHO protocols. An expert Guideline Development Group reviewed evidence to assess associations between physical activity and sedentary behaviour for an agreed set of health outcomes and population groups. The assessment used and systematically updated recent relevant systematic reviews; new primary reviews addressed additional health outcomes or subpopulations.

Results The new guidelines address children, adolescents, adults, older adults and include new specific recommendations for pregnant and postpartum women and people living with chronic conditions or disability. All adults should undertake 150–300 min of moderate-intensity, or 75–150 min of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or some equivalent combination of moderate-intensity and vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, per week. Among children and adolescents, an average of 60 min/day of moderate-to-vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity across the week provides health benefits. The guidelines recommend regular muscle-strengthening activity for all age groups. Additionally, reducing sedentary behaviours is recommended across all age groups and abilities, although evidence was insufficient to quantify a sedentary behaviour threshold.

Conclusion These 2020 WHO guidelines update previous WHO recommendations released in 2010. They reaffirm messages that some physical activity is better than none, that more physical activity is better for optimal health outcomes and provide a new recommendation on reducing sedentary behaviours. These guidelines highlight the importance of regularly undertaking both aerobic and muscle strengthening activities and for the first time, there are specific recommendations for specific populations including for pregnant and postpartum women and people living with chronic conditions or disability. These guidelines should be used to inform national health policies aligned with the WHO Global Action Plan on Physical Activity 2018–2030 and to strengthen surveillance systems that track progress towards national and global targets.

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