by Nate Widom
Your body sinks into your seat, your fingers feel numb from typing for several hours, and you ask yourself when the day will end. You’re tired. You’re cranky. You could be more productive. You know you must get up, move, and most importantly, enjoy a break.
Still, if you get up to stand or exercise in short increments, you’re bound to be happier and healthier. Thankfully, studies show that whether you stand while working, take short periodic walks, or explore the natural surroundings on your break; you’ll likely enjoy physical and mental health benefits.
Let’s be clear, 150 minutes of moderate activity and two days of muscle building per week is recommended for adults.1 But almost all movements are good movements. Breaking up your workday with shorter, more frequent increments of light exercise or standing up can be surprisingly impactful.
Here’s why you shouldn’t sit too long
First, the downsides of sitting too long need to be established. Over 80% of American jobs are primarily seated.2 Sitting for long periods uses much less energy than standing or moving. This means you will burn fewer calories while sitting, making weight gain more likely. In addition to early death, sedentary lifestyles are linked to obesity, a 100% increase in risk for type 2 diabetes, and an almost 150% increase in risk for heart disease.3 Regarding physical effects, sitting too long can lead to a stiff neck and lower back pain. The BBC even writes that cutting our sitting time to three hours per day can increase our life expectancy by two years!4
Take a Stand
The simplest way to get more movement in your day at the office is to stand. While light activity may be ideal throughout your lovely day at the office, you can still reap some benefits simply from standing more often. According to Healthline, standing burns 100-200 calories an hour, while sitting burns 60-130 calories.5 If you stand, you’ll activate muscle mass and be more inclined to make subtle movements throughout the day, creating a slight calorie burn. These calories will add up, but the amount burned will depend on factors like weight, height, sex, and age. A 2013 study found that one hour of exercise won’t compensate for the adverse effects of sitting too much.6 The researchers concluded that walking and standing more is more effective than one hour of exercise if energy expenditure is constant.
Consider a standing desk to incorporate more standing into your workday. A 2012 study found that office workers using standing desks reduced their sitting time by over an hour per day.7 They even reported improved moods and reduced upper back and neck pain by 54%. A 2019 review found that while these desks may only produce a mild change in health outcomes, they effectively relieve discomfort.8
Working at a standing desk likely won’t hinder your productivity either. A 2016 study found that those who used standing desks in a call center were 45% more productive during their workday.9 It’s worth asking your employer for a standing desk or investing in upgrading your home office. If you do, ease into the amount of time you stand.
In addition to standing throughout the day, studies show that these benefits appear even when you exercise mildly in short increments—perfect for your day at the office.
A 2016 study found that short bursts of physical activity will improve mood and decrease fatigue throughout the day. Participants in the study either sat for six hours, walked on the treadmill for 30 minutes before sitting for 6 hours, or sat for 6 hours with 5 minutes of walking once per hour. The intermittent walking group saw the most significant benefits compared to the group that got their walking in all at once. The researchers even concluded that those who work in sedentary environments would benefit from these breaks without detriment to their work performance.10 A 2022 study found that older adults who exercised in three 1-2 min bouts of vigorous exercise had about a 40% lower risk of cancer mortality and about a 50% lower risk for cardiovascular disease.11
A February 2023 study on healthy middle-aged and older adults found that a five-minute walk every half hour reduced the blood sugar spike after eating by almost 60% and blood pressure by 4-5 points.12 The good news is that the participants only walked at a “light” pace, and even walking for one minute reduced the blood pressure! The participants reported better mood, increased energy, and decreased feelings of fatigue.
You can still reap the benefits with even shorter, more intense sessions of movement. A 2020 study found that participants who sprinted for four seconds five times an hour (yes, only FOUR seconds) had improved fat metabolism, and their bloodstreams had lower triglyceride levels.13 According to a professor in the study, Edward F. Coyle, Ph.D., to enhance fat metabolism, your muscles shouldn’t be inactive for long periods.14
If your workplace is in an area surrounded by greenery, it’s a great idea to take breaks outside. According to the BBC, your self-esteem and mood will improve within just five minutes of exposure to nature, whether forest, countryside, or city park. However, those benefits increase if you are around water.15
A study of almost 20,000 British adults found that those who spent two hours a week in green spaces had a much higher likelihood of reporting positive physical and mental health improvements.16 To meet the two-hour threshold during the typical five-day workweek, you’ll only need to be outside for 24 minutes a day.
There’s more to your active breaks than fitness.
Whether you’re working out or taking a stroll, there are benefits to taking a break. Our brains recognize the constant stimulation of activity and determine it to be less important over time, making it harder for us to focus.17 Therefore, breaks from doing work will stimulate new ideas and make tasks seem more manageable. This enhances productivity and creativity while also relieving eye strain and stress.18
In a 2011 study, a group that did take brief breaks during a long, repetitive task saw no productivity drop, unlike the group that didn’t.19
Obviously, policies about breaks will vary by employer. If you don’t follow them, you’ll likely deal with issues.
Here’s what you can do.
Little bits of effort really do make a difference. Here are some simple ways to boost your health by spending less time in a seat.
- Park further away from your office.
- Eat your lunch in a communal space away from your desk.
- Take walks outside during your lunch break.
- Get a standing or treadmill desk.
- Use a fitness device to track your steps and aim to get at least a few hundred steps each hour.
- Set timers to remind you when to get up and walk/stretch.
- If you need to converse with coworkers, consider talking to them while standing.
- Stretch in your seat while working.