Thanks to technology, we all pretty much can do our daily errands and chores from a chair. In fact, most U.S. adults sit 9–12 hours daily, and the risks of inactivity are becoming more apparent. In fact, there is mounting evidence linking sedentary lifestyles to cardiovascular diseases and all causes of mortality (Diaz et al. 2017).

The good news is that taking short physical activity breaks can make a difference. Recent research offers some promising answers. Len Kravitz, PhD, program coordinator and professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico, reviews two studies suggesting that brief movement breaks after about 30 minutes of sitting can help to address the risks of sedentary lifestyles.

The Value of Activity Breaks

In the first study, researchers examined the association between objectively measured sedentary time and all causes of mortality (Diaz et al. 2017).

Researchers looked at information from about 8,000 black and white volunteers (ages 45 and older) from the REGARDS study, which examined racial and regional stroke disparities in the U.S.

What did they find? On average, most adults in this study spent 12.3 hours (out of a 16-hour waking day) in a sedentary behavior, primarily sitting. Total sitting time was found to correlate highly with all causes of death. However, adults who interrupted sedentary time with movement (at least) every 30 minutes had the lowest mortality risk.

Activity Quality and Quantity

In the second study, researchers studied whether interrupting prolonged sitting with brief bouts of light-intensity walking or simple resistance activities improves cardiometabolic risk markers in adults with type 2 diabetes (Dempsey et al. 2016).

The researchers recruited 24 overweight/obese, inactive participants. All participants did three different protocols, each separated by about 1 week. One protocol was 8 hours of uninterrupted sitting. Another protocol was 3 minutes of treadmill walking at 2 miles an hour every 30 minutes of the 8 hours. A third protocol did 3 minutes of partial squats, knee lifts and heel raises every 30 minutes of the 8 hours.

Both activity-break protocols significantly lowered blood glucose compared with the sitting-only period—a very positive finding because it shows that muscle cells were using glucose for fuel. More good news: Insulin levels were significantly lower in the physical activity protocols as compared to the sitting session. Furthermore, the physical activity protocols showed much lower, and positive, levels on C-peptide protein, a marker of insulin production.

Practical Applications

Rapid innovations in communications, workplaces, transportation and entertainment seem certain to encourage prolonged sedentary behavior (Dempsey et al. 2016). The study by Dempsey and colleagues recommends that 3 minutes of walking or simple body-weight resistance exercise (at a light-to-moderate intensity) for every 30 minutes of sedentary time can meaningfully improve factors directly related to cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

You may want to get creative with your intermittent 3-minute bouts of walking. Five sample walking intervals (see box) are modified and derived from interval training research. Or, you may wish to break up your sedentary periods with resistance training moves. You can mix up some resistance training movements and marching in place into really fun circuits (see sample, below). You may also choose to just move around for 3 minutes. (You can also work with a certified personal trainer to develop a short program.)

Complete your activity break at a light-to-moderate intensity. Many interval training apps for mobile devices can help you time these movement periods.

5 Sample Walking Intervals

All are 3 minutes in duration.

Alternate brisk walking with easygoing walking.

  1. 30/30: 30 seconds brisk with 30 seconds easygoing; repeat 3 times
  2. 15/15: 15 seconds brisk with 15 seconds easygoing; repeat 6 times
  3. 45/45: 45 seconds brisk with 45 seconds easygoing; repeat 2 times
  4. 8/12: 8 seconds brisk with 12 seconds easygoing; repeat 9 times
  5. Fartlek: 3-minute timed walk with random changes in speed (slow, moderate, brisk) and distance (short, medium). 

Five Simple Resistance Exercise Movement Circuits

Perform 10 repetitions of each movement, then go to the next movement. For knee raises, alternate knee lifts for a total of 20. Do each circuit twice. This fills a 3-minute period nicely. Complete marches in one place.

  1. half squats, knee raises, heel raises, marches
  2. knee raises, marches, half squats, heel raises
  3. marches, half squats, heel raises, knee raises
  4. heel raises, marches, knee raises, half squats
  5. marches, knee raises, half squats, heel raises