Heart health: How small changes in daily activity can offset sitting

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
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Researchers say sitting for prolonged periods is detrimental to heart health. DZ FILM/Stocksy
  • Researchers report that any activity is more beneficial to heart health than sitting, including sleeping.
  • Experts say daily activity can help with blood pressure, glucose levels, and muscle strength.
  • They say that even taking 5-minute walking breaks during the workday can be beneficial.

Baseball great Satchel Paige famously said “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

In other words: keep moving.

That’s the theme of a new study that states any activity — even sleeping — is better for the heart than sitting.

Supported by the British Heart Foundation and published today in the European Heart Journal, the study’s authors say their research is the first to assess how different movement patterns throughout the 24-hour day are linked to heart health.

The researchers say it’s the first evidence to emerge from the international Prospective Physical Activity, Sitting and Sleep (ProPASS) consortium.

Cardiovascular disease — all diseases of the heart and circulation — is the number one cause of mortality globally, the researchers point out. In 2021, it was responsible for one in three deaths (18 million) worldwide, with coronary heart disease the single biggest killer.

In their study, University College London scientists analyzed data from six studies, encompassing 15,246 people from five countries, to see how movement across the day is associated with heart health.

Each participant wore a device on their thigh measuring their activity throughout the 24-hour day and had their heart health measured.

Heart health was measured using six outcomes: body-mass index (BMI), waist circumference, HDL cholesterol, HDL-to-total cholesterol ratio, triglycerides, and HbA1c.

The study identified behaviors making up a typical 24-hour day, with time spent doing moderate-vigorous activity providing the most benefit to heart Health, followed by light activity, standing, and sleeping. All were compared with the adverse impact of sedentary behavior.

The team modeled what would happen if an individual changed various amounts of one behavior for another each day for a week to estimate the effect on heart health for each scenario. They reported that when replacing sedentary behavior, as little as 5 minutes of moderate-vigorous activity had a noticeable effect on heart health.

Researchers said that although time spent doing vigorous activity was the quickest way to improve heart Health, there are ways for people of all abilities to benefit. It’s just that the lower the intensity of the activity, the longer the time is required to start having a tangible benefit.

They said using a standing desk for a few hours a day instead of a sitting desk, for example, is a change over a relatively large amount of time but is also one that could be integrated into a working routine fairly easily.

The least active subjects were also found to gain the greatest benefit from becoming more active.

“A key novelty of the ProPASS consortium is the use of wearable devices that better differentiate between types of physical activity and posture, allowing us to estimate the health effects of even subtle variations with greater precision,” Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD, the joint senior author of the study and a professor the Charles Perkins Centre and Faculty of Medicine and Health at the University of Sydney, said in a statement.

Dr. Cheng-Han Chen, an interventional cardiologist and medical director of the Structural Heart Program at MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center in California, told Medical News Today there are many simple ways to add more steps to one’s day.

“Take scheduled breaks throughout the day to take a short five-minute walk, either around the house or around the office; taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking farther from the store and walking, and walking more briskly when shopping,” he advised.

Chen said using stairs has multiple positive effects.

“Walking upstairs is harder exercise than walking on level ground. That’s because not only are you moving your body, you’re moving it against gravity, and you’re essentially pushing yourself up and out,” he said. “You are also building your muscles in your lower body, strengthening your core, and your lower back.”

“Climbing stairs is more difficult, you’re doing more exercise, and more exercise is better for you and your heart. We think that climbing stairs actually gives you three times as much exercise as the same amount of time walking on the ground,” Chen noted.

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