Do 30 Minutes of Exercise Counteract Sitting?

Like many of us, I follow the CDC guideline to exercise for at least 30 minutes each day. I fill the time by walking my dog, following a workout routine on YouTube, or riding a stationary bike, and I always feel better when I’m done. I can’t help but wonder if that half hour is really a counterbalance to all the time I spend sitting. My hips, back, and shoulders still hurt at the end of a long day at work, and my hip flexors feel tight.

Curious, I delved into the research and found the short answer: 30 minutes of daily exercise does not cancel sitting all day. Still, adding more exercise to your daily routine can help counteract the effects of a sedentary lifestyle.

What the research says about sitting

We already know that sitting for a long time is not good for us. Doctors and physical therapists note that it causes poor circulation and can weaken your large leg and glutes. If you’re over 50, weakened leg muscles make you more likely to fall and injure yourself, and sitting for long periods of time can shorten your hip flexors, leading to problems in your hip joints. Also, poor posture can cause the discs in your spine to compress more than they should and accelerate their degeneration. But how does a sedentary lifestyle affect your lifespan?

A large body of research confirms that prolonged sitting is harmful to our long-term health. A recent study published in JAMA Cardiology who followed, more than 100,000 participants found that sitting eight or more hours a day correlated with a higher risk of death and cardiovascular disease. In contrast, those risks were significantly reduced by sitting less than four hours a day and exercising every day.

Another study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2021 looked at the benefits of 30 minutes of daily exercise. After following more than 130,000 participants for about 14 years, the researchers found that half an hour of exercise reduced the risk of death by up to 80 percent in people who spent less than seven hours sitting. However, 30 minutes of exercise had less of a positive effect on those who sat for seven to 11 hours, and it had no positive effect on those who sat for more than 11 hours.

So if you spend less than seven hours a day sedentary, 30 minutes of exercise might be enough. But the more hours you spend sitting, the more physical activity you’ll need to counteract that time spent sitting.

How much exercise do you need?

Here’s what the researchers recommend: If you have to work at a desk eight hours a day, you should be doing about an hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity every day. When you’re not working, don’t sit and watch TV or scroll on your phone! Instead, get two to four hours of light activity before and after work.

Here are a few ways to ramp up your activity:

  • Invest in a treadmill and put it in the TV room so you can walk while watching your favorite shows.
  • Take your pup for a longer walk every morning, or do some housework before work.
  • After you complete a project or big task, take five or ten minutes to stretch or squat. (Taking five minutes every hour to stretch is also helpful, but many people find this difficult to sustain because it disrupts their concentration.)
  • While cooking dinner, use the cooking time to do a quick kitchen workout.
  • Invest in a standing desk. Standing is not as beneficial as walking and can lead to foot pain without the right shoes, but it will help you work on your balance and posture.

Spend more time doing physical activity on weekends. Take longer walks and, if you can, increase your pace for about 20 minutes. If you’re not interested in walking, sign up for a dance, yoga, or water aerobics class on the weekend. The more you move your body, the greater your investment will be in your long-term health.

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