Health Technology

Sitting Disease – Can Workouts Save You?

Sitting Disease – Can Workouts Save You?

How Much Exercise is Enough?

It’s no secret to anyone that sitting all day at a desk takes a toll on your health. Researchers have warned us that a sedentary lifestyle is associated with a higher rate of chronic disease and even mortality.  Do you spend hours exercising each week hoping it will offset the negative effects of sitting? If so, is it enough effort to prevent a downward health spiral?

We have been given so much conflicting advice about the right kind and amount of exercise that it’s no wonder people are confused. A few experts have reported that 30 minutes of daily physical activity should be enough to counter a full day of desk work. Yet other experts tell us we really need to be exercising at least 60 minutes or more each day. You may have even heard that sitting 6 or more hours per day wipes out the benefits of your workout.  So what is the answer?


Up to Date Research

Two recent sources have shed more light on this ongoing debate. A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (Ekelund et al., 2020) concluded “In active individuals doing about 30-40 minutes of moderate to-vigorous intensity physical activity, the association between high sedentary time and risk of death is not significantly different from those with low amounts of sedentary time.” In other words, 30-40 minutes of exercise may offset the increased mortality risk from sedentary work. The study was based on objective data from fitness trackers instead of self-reporting.

These results are in line with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) new 2020 Global Guidelines on Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior. The old WHO guidelines had recommended up to 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercises per week. The new 2020 WHO guidelines have increased to:

• 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week (approximately 20-43 minutes per day)
• Or 75-150 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity per week (approximately 10-20 minutes per day)

The American Heart Association (2018) defines moderate (medium) intensity exercises as a level where your heart rate and breathing increase above normal but you are still able to talk. Vigorous intensity exercise is defined as the level where your body temperature rises, sweating begins and you are unable to converse without running out of breath. If you have not been exercising regularly or cannot tolerate this amount or intensity of exercise, it is recommended that you start off with shorter bouts of simpler activity. Be sure to consult with your medical provider before starting any new exercise program. Any amount of exercise or physical activity will help to some degree.


Broad Recommendations are Tricky

So, do the updated guidelines mean that it’s OK to sit all day at work after 30-40 minutes of exercise? The answer is probably not. These guidelines are the most up to date science that we have for reducing your risk of an earlier death from sitting disease, yet we have more to learn on this topic. These guidelines do not protect workers from other real health risks caused by sedentary work.

Even if you follow the above recommendations and exercise outside of work, prolonged sitting during the work day may negate some of the exercise benefits. That’s because prolonged sitting leads to muscle and joint stiffness, sluggish circulation, and most of all, discomfort. This is true even if you have a comfortable, plush ergonomic chair. Anytime that you sit for over an hour, you can expect some stiffness and discomfort. Generally, the longer you sit, the more you hurt.

While sitting, muscles shorten and stiffen in the legs, hips, shoulders, chest, back and neck. Some of our most important postural muscles tend to weaken in the core, back, neck and the backside of the shoulders and hips. Prolonged sitting compresses some of the largest blood and lymphatic vessels in the body (because we are sitting on them). That can be a problem for those who already have compromised circulation.

Breathing is also affected by prolonged sitting. We tend to take more shallow breaths as we settle into forward leaning or hunched postures. Breathing is not only necessary for delivering oxygen to our brain and tissues, but also for rhythmic lymphatic flow throughout the body.

The Risk of Injury

Although it’s true that exercising outside of work can increase muscle strength, endurance and improve health, it will not prevent the stress of repetitive motions and static postural strain. Think of how many thousands of repetitions of finger and hand movements occur when typing or the high amount of stress placed on spinal discs when sitting for hours at a time.

The Effects on Metabolism

Even with the recommended amounts of exercise, workers may still find themselves in a calorie surplus. Sedentary work greatly reduces metabolism for extended periods of time, which can be difficult to completely offset with one exercise session per day.

How to Achieve the Best Overall Health

Stay current with the best available science and exercise recommendations. If 20-45 minutes of moderate or 10-20 minutes of vigorous exercise feels overwhelming, then perform 2 or 3 shorter exercise sessions. Use your creativity to squeeze exercise breaks into the day such as a 10-15 minute walk at lunch, walking during business calls, adding resistance band strengthening during breaks or anything that helps to increase your breathing and circulation.

Aim for consistent movement and stretching breaks throughout the day, even if you have already exercised, to maximize the health benefits of your daily workout.
Remember that static standing itself is not an ideal substitute for static sitting. You need to get your body moving for the following health benefits:

  • Reducing mortality risk
  • Reducing stiffness and discomfort
  • Reducing static and repetitive motion stress
  • Increasing breathing and circulation
  • Increasing caloric expenditure
  • Maximizing comfort

The key is to move every 20-30 minutes for at least 2 minutes at a time to prevent stiffness from setting in. If movement breaks are only possible hourly, then extend them to 5-10 minutes. If you are on long videoconference meetings or calls you can often stand and stretch your legs, hips and ankles without causing a
distraction. The more movement or exercise throughout the day, the better for health and comfort. Do you have questions? Would you like help with a personalized exercise program or getting comfortable at your desk? Be sure to reach out to this email address:

Cindy Powell MPT, ATC, STS, CEAS III, AOEAS  Ergonomic Consultant


American Heart Association. (2018, April 18).
American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids.

Bull, F. (2020). World Health Organization 2020 guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behavior. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 54 (22), 1451-1462

Ekelund, U. (2020). Joint associations of accelerometermeasured physical activity and sedentary time with all-cause mortality: a harmonised metaanalysis in more than 44,000 middle-aged and older individuals. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 54 (24), 1499-1507.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to provide or replace any medical or healthcare treatment or advice nor is it intended to diagnose or treat any conditions.  Always consult with your physician/healthcare provider first if you have any questions, concerns, medical conditions or risk factors and before attempting any new exercise(s).

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