Break Up Your Sitting Time with Movement

Adding minimal amounts of daily physical activity can have positive health consequences

Sheri Colberg-OchsBy Sheri Colberg-Ochs, PhD

If you have diabetes or prediabetes and are also out of shape and living a sedentary lifestyle, your doctor might be telling you that it's time to make a change. The good news is that if you're starting out on the lower end of the fitness and/or activity scale, you have the most to gain from adding in even minimal amounts of daily physical activity.

The first thing you should consider is adding in more daily living activities and other daily movement. Simply standing up and moving around more can lower your metabolic risk and help control blood glucose levels. In fact, you can gain health benefits by cutting back on the total amount of time you spend doing sedentary activities, which you can do by adding in frequent, short bouts of standing or other movement to break up the time you spend sitting into smaller chunks. This helps even if you're already physically active.

Making small changes in your daily activity, such as taking a 5-minute walking break every hour, also likely benefits you if you're trying to lose weight or keep it off. Theoretically, during an 8-hour workday, a person can burn off an extra 24, 59, or 132 Calories by simply getting up and walking around at a normal walking pace for one, two, or five minutes every hour, respectively, compared with sitting. Even modest amounts of exercise that don't result in weight loss benefit your body's ability to metabolize glucose and fat. In short, simply taking breaks from sedentary time is a potential way to lose weight and prevent weight gain, and it may help prevent type 2 diabetes in the first place.

Taking frequent breaks from sitting during the day likely also helps prevent or lower your post-meal blood glucose spikes, even if your diabetes is already in good control (an A1C level well below 7.0 percent). Studies have also shown that in newly-diagnosed adults with type 2 diabetes (ages 30-80), the more time that they spent doing sedentary things, the larger their waist size. A larger waistline means you have more of the "bad" fat stored inside your abdomen and a greater chance of developing high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, heart disease, and even cancer — it's always better to have less fat stored there. Simply being more active all day long doing regular activities can actually keep you from gaining as much of that bad fat by using up a lot of calories.

If you do nothing else, just stand up more — it counts as unstructured activity. In one study, the main difference between groups of lean and obese adults was that the obese people sat for about 2.5 hours more per day and walked an average of 3.5 miles less per day than their lean counterparts. Those lean adults usually did nothing more than take walks of short duration (less than 15 minutes) and low velocity (about one mile per hour). Thus, how long you spend sitting each day and whether you move at all during periods of prolonged inactivity are both critical in determining how well your metabolism works and your blood glucose is controlled.

Of course, if you progress from taking more frequent breaks in your sedentary time to moving more all day long and engaging in more structured physical activities (especially if you meet the guidelines of doing at least 150 minutes of moderate activity a week and two days of resistance training), you will likely gain additional health benefits. If you're currently sedentary, you have to start somewhere, though, and just getting up on your feet can move you well out of the highest health risk category without your ever having to break a sweat. A good rule of thumb is to never sit more than 30 minutes continuously without standing up and taking a break—or even better, walking around for a few minutes to minimize the negative metabolic effects of prolonged sitting.

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Read more of Sheri Colberg-Och's columns.

NOTE: The information is not intended to be a replacement or substitute for consultation with a qualified medical professional or for professional medical advice related to diabetes or another medical condition. Please contact your physician or medical professional with any questions and concerns about your medical condition.

Last Modified Date: May 23, 2013

All content on is created and reviewed in compliance with our editorial policy.
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