This January, we’re on the search for quick, accessible hacks to kickstart 2023 in the strongest way possible. Today’s cardio kickstarter: how just five minutes of walking can massively benefit your health.
If you have an office job or work from home, chances are you spend most of your day sitting at a desk. From there, we may move a few paces to spend our evenings on the sofa before collapsing into bed – all of which adds up to a very sedentary lifestyle, even for those of us who work out regularly.
We’re all being told to move more as the effects of prolonged sitting take their toll on our mental and physical health, but this doesn’t have to mean spending hours in the gym.
A new study by Columbia University Irving Medical Centre reveals that just five minutes of standing up and walking around every half an hour can offset some of the most harmful effects of sitting down all day.
Researchers looked at five different exercise “snacks”: one minute of walking after every 30 minutes of sitting; one minute every 60 minutes; five minutes every 30; five minutes every 60; and no walking at all – and the results were surprising.
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The benefits of walking for 5 minutes every half an hour
Lower blood sugar levels
In the first trial of its kind to examine exactly how much exercise makes a difference to our health indicators, the researchers found that the optimal amount of movement was five minutes of walking every 30 minutes. This was the only amount that “significantly lowered both blood sugar and blood pressure,” although walking for one minute every 30 minutes also improved blood sugar levels throughout the day.
Feeling fuller for longer
Interestingly, the five-minute walking routine also had a big impact on how the participants responded to a large meal, reducing blood sugar spikes by 58% compared with sitting all day.
Reduced blood pressure
If you have raised blood pressure, the good news is that all the amounts of walking measured “significantly reduced blood pressure compared with sitting all day”.
“What we know now is that for optimal health, you need to move regularly at work, in addition to a daily exercise routine,” say the researchers. “While that may sound impractical, our findings show that even small amounts of walking spread through the workday can significantly lower your risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses.”
Is 5 minutes of walking really long enough?
“Absolutely!” says doctor and personal trainer Dr Aishah Iqbal. “Movement snacking, the term used to describe small bursts of movement throughout the day, has been shown to be really beneficial for our health. Taking a five-minute stroll every half an hour is exactly that; this way of moving is known to benefit cardiovascular fitness and function of muscles.”
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Mental health benefits of exercise snacking
And the benefits of a stroll around the office (or your living room) aren’t limited to physical health. The researchers also looked at participants’ mood and fatigue levels and discovered that all the walking regimes – except only walking for a minute every hour – led to “significant decreases in fatigue and significant improvements in mood”.
Moving boosts productivity
“When we sit in the same place for a long time, it’s easier to get stuck, metaphorically, on a task and to lose focus,” explains productivity coach Juliet Landau-Pope.
“Standing up for a few moments, walking across a room or down a corridor and back, can help to overcome procrastination,” she continues. “Research shows that taking breaks from prolonged sitting improves cognitive functions, memory and attention. It can also reduce stress and alleviate fatigue, providing a short burst of energy, thereby enhancing mental health as well as productivity.”
You don’t even have to move away from your desk to reap some benefits – simply standing up can help.
“People feel more active when they are standing, even if stationary,” says Dr Iqbal. “Arguably, this can boost mindset and make us feel better. Standing up can also reduce back and shoulder pain, as sitting or being inactive for a long period of time is associated with back pain, especially if you have bad posture.”
Try a standing desk
“A boost in mood, focus and productivity is often described by office workers opting for a standing desk rather than sitting,” advises Dr Iqbal. “Research looking at the use of standing desks in schools found an increase in executive function and working memory, so this could be a good option if you don’t have the freedom or time to wander around.”
What if your job is too busy to walk around all the time?
“Even a small amount of movement is beneficial, because it’s always more than doing nothing,” recommends Dr Iqbal. “Being mindful of getting up and away from your desk to give you chance to stretch your legs is something we should all try to incorporate into our day. A great way to remind yourself is to have a sticky note reminder or even a timed reminder in your calendar or phone.”
Personal trainer and head coach at Wild Strong Andrew Telfer agrees. “While you can’t counteract eight hours of sitting with an hour in the gym, this study shows it’s worth thinking about how you can build more movement into your day,” he advises. “Stand when you can and take five minutes every so often to move in different ways – it all helps.”
Take this as your reminder to move.
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