If you spent your coronavirus lockdown curled up on the couch catching up on the latest must-see TV, your health may have taken a bit of a hit. But new research suggests that brief walks throughout the day might offset some of that damage.
The study confirmed that sitting for long periods can lead to higher blood sugar levels, possibly upping the risk of type 2 diabetes. Just standing up every half hour or so won’t counter the effects of sedentary living, but a 5-minute walk every half hour or so can help, the researchers found.
The catch? The biggest changes in blood sugar levels were most pronounced in certain groups of people. Specifically, brief walking appeared to have a greater benefit for people of South Asian descent, women and people with a body mass index (BMI) above 27.2. A BMI of 25 to 29.9 is overweight and 30 or higher is obese.
“Emerging evidence suggests that spending prolonged periods sitting is unhealthy and may increase the risk of diabetes,” said study author Joseph Henson, from the Leicester Diabetes Centre in the United Kingdom.
“The results demonstrate that simply breaking up sitting time every 30 minutes with light activity — but not standing — lowered sugar and insulin levels,” he said.
Henson added that these findings might be used to help tailor specific interventions for breaking up prolonged sitting time to the people who could benefit the most.
Previous research has linked long, regular bouts of being sedentary to a number of adverse health outcomes. Sitting a lot has been tied to a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers and even dying, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
The current study looked at the effects of sitting on blood sugar levels after eating among 129 volunteers (average age 64). The study participants had their blood sugar tested periodically over a 6.5-hour period. The BMI of the study participants ranged from 20 to 45. Thirty-one percent of the group was South Asian.
Blood sugar and insulin levels were checked while participants were sedentary for 6.5 hours and when they broke up prolonged bouts of sitting by standing or participating in 5 minutes of walking every 30 minutes.
The researchers didn’t find a positive effect from standing up periodically. But the study found about a 5% reduction in blood sugar levels overall and about a 20% reduction in insulin levels for those who took brief walks throughout the day, Henson noted.
In South Asians, women and people with a higher BMI, Henson noted that short walks led to even greater benefits — around a 10% reduction in blood sugar and a 35% reduction in insulin levels.
“Even small amounts of light activity will make a difference,” Henson said. “Everyone should be encouraged to simply sit less and move more, regardless of the intensity.”
Dr. Minisha Sood, an endocrinologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, is familiar with the new research.
“This article has very interesting findings, which include that standing does not confer much benefit versus sitting in this population,” she said.
The study confirmed that even light activity can benefit people, Sood added.
“It is important to recognize that while exercise recommendations are what they are, non-exercise activity is also very important in establishing an ongoing healthy lifestyle,” she said.
The findings were published recently in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
The U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases has more on starting new physical activity.