It seems obvious that sitting around all day is bad for us. Our bodies were made to move. Sedentary lives are generally unhealthy lives. Lack of exercise has been connected to high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. It is linked to obesity. In the United Kingdom, it could be responsible for one in 10 cases of heart disease. Although articles suggesting that sitting is the new smoking may be overblown, there’s no question that it’s not good for us. Recent research has illuminated something surprising. Walking or doing other light activity for just a few minutes a day can reduce your cancer risk. So what is the best strategy to charge up your lifestyle?
Almost all animals are active. It’s how they survive. Predators and prey compete in life or death races. People, too, once moved to live. They hunted and gathered, they farmed and built. Then, almost in the blink of an eye, it stopped. Humans started working in offices, sitting at desks.
In 1970, just two in ten working Americans were in jobs requiring only light activity. Thirty years later, that number had doubled. Today it’s even higher. Most of us spend our waking hours staring at a screen. From toddlers and teens to millennials and boomers, we are focused on our desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Or we are staring through the glass screen of a car windshield. For much of the time, we are sitting or lying down. Even farm and factory work has become less active, thanks to the rise of machines. Today, even our pets are getting fat.
Those who don’t move around have long suffered from all manner of illnesses. Most fitness counselors offer the simple solution to exercise more and eat less. Unfortunately, this logical answer must battle the nearly immovable object of schedules, obligations, and ingrained habits. The good news is that a recent study suggests we don’t have to exercise all that hard to get health benefits.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity like walking or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity activity like fast walking. While these guidelines were seen as the bare minimum to get associated health benefits, a new study suggests its adherents enjoy longer lifespans.
Studies related to exercise once relied upon the subjects’ self-reporting. If you’ve ever exaggerated the length of a run or your time at a gym, then you can see the problem. These studies were notoriously inaccurate because their subjects made inaccurate reports. In the 21st century, technology has changed that. Thanks to microelectronic technologies like the accelerometer, researchers enjoy far more accurate results. For a recent study of over 8,000 adults, participants wore hip-mounted accelerometers for seven consecutive days. The devices beamed back information on precisely how much the subjects were moving. Around five years later, some 268 participants had died of cancer. The mean age of the test subjects was nearly 70–an age of increasing risk. Yet data showed that those who did the least had an 82% greater chance of dying of cancer than the most active subjects. Trading 30 minutes of sitting for moderate-intensity activity like riding a bike was associated with a 31% lower risk of cancer death. Just walking–a light-intensity activity–resulted in an 8% lower risk for dying of cancer. The study suggests that activity level is predictive–the less active you are, the more likely you are to die of cancer.
Women battling breast cancer face similar realities. They too are better off when they exercise. Even in the midst of chemotherapy, women who exercise enjoy better outcomes. A recent study showed that meeting minimum guidelines like the ones offered by the CDC for physical activity had clear benefits. Those who exercised both before diagnosis and after treatment enjoyed what the researchers called “statistically significantly” reduced hazards of recurrence and mortality.
The best part about the new research is how incredibly lenient it is. You don’t have to compete in marathons or hit the gym two hours a day. Everything from yoga to gardening can make a huge difference. Take the stairs at work or walk a few extra blocks with your dog, and you’re well on your way to health. Besides, it isn’t just about how long you live, but how well you live.
Written by John Bankston
- Evaluating the Evidence on Sitting, Smoking, and Health: Is Sitting Really the New Smoking?
- Association of Sedentary Behavior With Cancer Mortality in Middle-aged and Older US Adults | Cancer Screening, Prevention, Control | JAMA Oncology | JAMA Network
- Sedentary Behavior: Emerging Evidence for a New Health Risk
- Study: Over half of pet dogs and cats were overweight in 2015 | American Veterinary Medical Association
- How much physical activity do adults need?
- Physical Activity Before, During, and After Chemotherapy for High-Risk Breast Cancer: Relationships With Survival