How to fight the bad health effects of sitting all day at work

The news is out there: "sitting is the new smoking," they say. Researchers tell us a sedentary lifestyle leads to increased heart disease & other problems. But a new study says just one hour of exercise can offset eight hours sitting. Sound too good to be true? Exercise specialist Allana LeBlanc weighs in.

A new study from the Lancet says just one hour of "moderate exercise" can off-set eight hours of sitting

A new study explains what we need to do to counteract the bad health effects of sitting all day at work and school.

We are just beginning to know more about how terribly unhealthy it is to sit for long periods.

It's not easy to avoid if your work at a desk for eight hours a day. Researchers are seeing an increase in heart disease, even certain types of cancer.

A new study from The Lancet suggests that just one hour of moderate physical exercise may help off-set the impact of eight hours of sitting.

To weight in on whether or not this is too good to be true, CBC's Conrad Collaco spoke with Allana LeBlanc, an exercise specialist with Participaction Canada. You can listen to the full interview by clicking the image above or you can read an edited and abridged version of the interview below.

Allana LeBlanc, exercise specialist with Participaction Canada

Q: Why exactly is sitting so bad for our health?

A: We're learning more about this throughout our research. It does increase your risk for various types of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and even more holistic types of health, such as increased anxiety or depression.

And, we don't think about this, but sitting too long can even decrease your productivity at work. We often think that being at work, in front of our computer...we're working! But we actually find more and more that breaking up that sitting time will let us get back to work re-energized, re-focused, and more productive throughout the afternoon.

Q: How can we make our work more productive and healthier?

This study was just released by The Lancet, and it looked at over a million people worldwide and their activity and their sitting time habits. They found that those who were able to accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate activity per day were able to eliminate the risks associated with sitting for eight hours a day. Which is the typical work day.

So by getting that 60 minutes of moderate activity per day we can do a lot of really good things for our health. And maybe not all at once, but integrated throughout our day.

Q: Is there anything we can do while sitting at the desk that helps mitigate effects of sitting for eight hours?

A: First of all, we have to get to that moderate intensity level. To put it in perspective, Canadian physical activity guidelines suggest you need at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week. This 60 minutes of moderate activity is at the low end of the activity spectrum when we're talking about health benefits.

You're not sweating profusely but you are feeling a little bit warm, breathing heavier, your heart rate is up. So it's not as simple as standing at your desk, although that does do wonders for breaking up your sitting time, but it's going for a 10-minute brisk walk, or getting off transit early, or if you're able to cycle to work -- something like that -- to incorporate physical activity throughout the day.

Q: How helpful are standing work stations in preventing the bad health affects that come with long stretches of sitting?

A: At Participaction we're really lucky because we do all have standing desks here. They're the kind that you can have in a standing position and then put them back into a sitting position if you need a break. This kind of thing is really great. You can do half an hour up, maybe 10 minutes down, things like that.

Different office setups allow you to even play games during the work day. Put up a basketball net and play around for a little bit. The unconventional is what we need to incorporate more and more. 

Q: Unconventional, and in some cases unwelcome in the workplace. Taking that break to do something physical is not something workplaces have traditionally welcomed. Should that change?

A: You're totally right, it's unfortunate. We do have to have to work together, and it's not just at an office level but anywhere and at all levels of government. All of us need to work together to shift these societal and workplace norms. And knowing that if we do encourage these workplace breaks, we're going to work harder and better, and we'll all be healthier.

So we can encourage each other because we know that having a supportive environment will let you be more active. And in the long run you're probably getting more and better quality work done. I think it's a win-win-win. We know from a government perspective, getting people more active is reducing healthcare costs, plain and simple.

This interview has been edited for length. Full audio version above.