It’s not uncommon for many people to sit for at least 8 hours every day, especially if you have a desk job and enjoy relaxing on the couch during your off-hours. However, research shows people who are most sedentary are at increased risk of premature death. The good news is, you don’t have to exercise for hours to combat the negative effects of sitting. While previous research suggested 60–75 minutes was required, newer research finds shorter amounts of movement from 11–35 minutes are linked to positive effects on longevity — even if you sit for extended periods.
A recently published meta-analysis study found just 11 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, such as brisk walking, reduced the risk of premature death. However, the sweet spot for getting the greatest statistical improvement in lifespan appears to be 35 minutes of brisk walking per day.
“Those who were active for about 35 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous-intensity physical activity did not have a statistically significant risk of dying during follow-up, even if they were sedentary for more than 10 hours,” says study author Ulf Ekelund, PhD, professor of sports medicine at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences in Oslo, Norway.
The research is notable because study participants wore accelerometers to track the amount of time they performed physical activity or were sedentary. Previous studies asked participants to self-report their physical activity levels and sedentary behaviors, which is less reliable. “We know many people overestimate their amount of physical activity by self-report, and device-measured physical activity is more accurate — although not perfect — for estimating time spent sedentary and in different intensities of physical activity,” explains Ekelund.
Follow these five steps to get 35 minutes of exercise every day, even if you have a sedentary lifestyle:
Schedule exercise into your day and be prepared when it’s time to get moving. “[You can] put a sticky note on your mirror at home or in your office to remind you to exercise,” recommends Pamela Stewart Fahs, RN, PhD, professor at Binghamton University’s Decker School of Nursing in New York. “If you walk on your lunch hour, keep a pair of suitable walking shoes by your desk.”
Consider making walking dates with a friend — even a long-distance friend — to make it more enjoyable and keep you accountable. “During the current pandemic, I’ve developed a new strategy: I walk with my sister most days a week, even though she lives in a different state,” says Fahs. “We both work primarily from home now, so setting our schedule simply means working it in between the Zoom meetings and other requirements for our [jobs]. We will text each other to see when the other is available to walk and get on the phone and talk while we are walking.” You can also use these strategies to stay connected with friends and family via virtual walks.
Walking 35 minutes at once is effective, but so is logging 35 minutes over the course of the day.
“Our data is based on accumulated time,” says Ekelund. “Every minute counts, and accumulating about 35 minutes also in short bouts appears beneficial.”
If you only have 10–20 minutes, you can still fit in a great walking workout. “[Get up] 10 minutes earlier to just walk around the block, or make that part of your routine as soon as you come home,” says Dr. Mark Slabaugh, a sports medicine physician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
Taking small actions to be less sedentary during the day definitely adds up. “Any type of activity you can do is better than nothing,” says Slabaugh. For example, take the stairs, park further from the entrance to the grocery store or fill up your water bottle more frequently. These 75 tips help you increase your step count in no time.
Be creative when you decide how to get 35 minutes of exercise. “Anything that you can to get your heart rate up will be better for you long term,” says Slabaugh. Walking to an upbeat playlist, following a walking DVD, adding high-intensity intervals, playing with incline and interspersing walks with bodyweight exercises are all great ways to reach the 35-minute moderate-vigorous intensity threshold. “Physical activity doesn’t have to be difficult or boring,” adds Fahs. “Dancing to fast-paced music is fun and will also increase your heart rate.”
“Thirty-five minutes is more easily incorporated into one’s lifestyle, and the news that this may lessen premature death is heartening to those trying to incorporate more activity into an often-sedentary lifestyle,” says Fahs. Not only can brisk walking lessen the risk of diseases like heart disease and diabetes, and extend longevity, but it can also greatly improve your mood levels, reduce stress, and be a bonding activity. Keep track of your steps with an app like MyFitnessPal and work to increase your duration to at least 35 minutes per day.
To become more active, try setting a simple goal to increase (and track) your daily steps. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app and choose a 28-day step plan to learn tips to boost your activity.