A newly published study suggests that two hours of sedentary behavior can be just as harmful as 20 minutes of exercise is beneficial. The study’s researchers conclude that periodically moving around can improve cardiovascular health.

In the study, published online in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, cardiologists at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center examine the association between fitness levels, daily exercise and sedentary behavior, based on data from 2,223 participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Sedentary behavior involves low-energy activities such as sitting, driving, watching TV and reading. The study’s findings suggest that sedentary behavior might be an important determinant of cardiorespiratory fitness, independent of exercise.

“Previous studies have reported that sedentary behavior was associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular outcomes. However, the mechanisms through which this occurs are not completely understood,” said Dr. Jarett Berry, an assistant professor of internal medicine and clinical science and senior author of the study.

“Our data suggest that sedentary behavior may increase risk through an impact on lower fitness levels, and that avoiding sedentary behavior throughout the day may represent an important companion strategy to improve fitness and health, outside of regular exercise activity.”

'Any Movement Is Good Movement'

The team of physician-researchers analyzed accelerometer data from men and women between the ages of 12 and 49 with no known history of heart disease, asthma or stroke, and measured their average daily physical activity and sedentary-behavior times. The researchers estimated fitness levels using a submaximal treadmill test, and adjusted variables for gender, age and body-mass index.

The findings show that the negative effect of six hours of sedentary time on fitness levels was similar in magnitude to the benefit of one hour of exercise.

“We also found that when sitting for prolonged periods of time, any movement is good movement, and was also associated with better fitness,” said Dr. Jacquelyn Kulinski, a recent graduate from the UT Southwestern Cardiology Fellowship Training Program and first author of the paper. “So if you are stuck at your desk for a while, shift positions frequently, get up and stretch in the middle of a thought, pace while on a phone call, or even fidget.”

To stay active and combat sedentary behavior, UT Southwestern preventive cardiologists recommend:

  • Taking short walks during lunch and throughout the day.
  • Using a pedometer to track daily steps.
  • Taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Hosting walking meetings at work.
  • Replacing a standard desk chair with a fitness ball or even a treadmill desk, if possible.

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey is an ongoing series of studies conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The database contains health and nutritional data from a diverse population, representative of the U.S. population.