Walking this many minutes a day can undo the harmful effects of sitting, study finds

Sitting all day is well-documented to be harmful for your health, from impeding your blood flow to increasing your risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Previous research has even shown that while regular physical activity can reduce some of the negative impact of sitting all day, it can't undo all of it.

However, a new study found that brief periods of exercise may be more beneficial for your health than previously thought, even if you spend most of the day sitting. This strategy of small bursts of movement throughout the day is also known as "exercise snacking."

Published Oct. 24 in the The British Journal of Sports Medicine, the new research found that the current recommendation of getting 150 minutes a week of moderate to rigorous physical activity can counteract the harm to your body from sitting for prolonged periods, the study’s lead author, Edvard Sagelv, a researcher at The Arctic University of Norway, told NBC News via email.

"This is the beautiful part: We are talking about activities that make you breathe a little bit heavier, like brisk walking, or gardening or walking up a hill," he said. “Only 20 minutes of this a day is enough, meaning, a small stroll of 10 minutes twice a day — like jumping off the bus one stop before your actual destination to work and then when taking the bus back home, jumping off one stop before.”

The data came from almost 12,000 people ages 50 and older who wore movement-detection devices for 10 hours a day for four days and were tracked for at least two years. The researchers found that sitting for more than 12 hours a day versus eight hours increased risk of death by 38% — but this only applied to people who got less than 22 minutes of moderate to rigorous activity a day. They also found that the more people exercised, the more the risk of death decreased.

What about lower intensity activity? This only benefitted people who spent 12 or more hours a day sitting.

Previous research also shows the benefits of "exercise snacks." Another study published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that 30 to 40 minutes a day of moderate-to-vigorous activity mostly counteracts the damage done by lots of time sitting and, better yet, that the exercise can be done in short spurts.

“Physical activity of at least moderate intensity, equivalent to the current recommendations from the World Health Organization (150 to 300 minutes of activity of at least moderate intensity per week for adults), seems to attenuate the risk of death associated with high sedentary time,” said the study’s lead author, Ulf Ekelund, a professor in the department of Sport Medicine at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences in Oslo.

“It is possible to split up the activity to as short as 1-minute bouts,” Ekelund said in an email. “We examined accumulated time in minutes in light, moderate and vigorous intensity, which effectively means that ‘every single minute counts.’ The newly released (WHO) guidelines suggest that you can accumulate physical activity in small bouts (such as taking the stairs) throughout the day.”

The study examined how various amounts of exercise and sitting interacted with one another. The researchers totaled all the minutes during the day that were shown to be active and sedentary by the accelerometers. It also found that you can undo the damage of sitting.

“We observed that those who were most active did not have a statistically increased risk of death regardless of high sitting time compared with the group with the highest MVPA (moderate-to-vigorous physical activity) and lowest sedentary time,” Ekelund said. “Those in the middle group (11 minutes per day) had no increased risk of death if they belonged to the least sedentary (about 8.5 hours per day).”

It’s important to remember that sitting time includes not only time in the office but during the rest of the day, as well.

Sports medicine expert Matthew Darnell, Ph.D., is intrigued by the idea of short bouts of activity adding up to the recommended amounts.

“I really like that term (exercise snacks),” Darnell said. “It could be as simple as going for a walk around the block two times a day. Those little exercise snacks add up over time.”

However experts stress that you shouldn't assume these studies mean you can sit all day except for a 22 minute walk and not have any negative health effects. Talk to your doctor or a trainer about the right amount of exercise for you based on your daily routine.

This article was originally published on TODAY.com