The benefits of light activity such as walking or stretching according to new research

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  • If you sit a lot during the day, simply getting the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise won’t be enough to counteract sedentary behaviour, new research finds.
  • Researchers recommend getting three minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity or 12 minutes of light activity to every one hour of sitting.
  • Light activity—such as tidying up, walking the dog, gardening, even a few minutes of stretching—can be more beneficial to your health than you might think.

At this point, ‘don’t sit too much’ has reached the same level as other health advice like wear sunscreen, drink more water, and get enough sleep.

The good news is that you can counteract that sedentary behaviour if you incorporate more light physical activity throughout the course of your day, no matter what that activity looks like, according to a recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. And yes, this advice applies to you even if you go for a 30-minute run but spend the rest of the day sitting; it’s important to consider your activity habits all day.

Researchers analysed six studies that represented more than 130,000 adults in the U.K., Sweden, and the U.S., looking at data on moderate to vigorous exercise, such as running, as well as light physical activity, such as housework or leisurely walking.

They found those who got at least half an hour of the more vigorous exercise reduced their risk of early mortality by a significant amount compared to those who were mainly sedentary. No surprise there, but they also noted that the association between moderate-to-vigorous activity and mortality depended on how those participants spent the rest of their day.

Those who integrated lighter activity in different combinations—called “cocktails” by study co-author Keith Diaz, Ph.D., assistant professor of behavioural medicine at Columbia University Medical Center—were much more likely to reap the longer-life benefits.

That’s because simply getting the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise won’t be enough if you sit too much, he told Runner’s World.

‘A healthy movement profile requires more than 30 minutes of daily exercise,’ he said. ‘Moving around and not remaining sedentary all day also matters.’ He added that he doesn’t believe the hype about how sitting is the new smoking, but that moderation is key.

The researchers recommend a cocktail mix of 3 to 1, which means three minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity or 12 minutes of light activity to every one hour of sitting. Here’s what that might look like in a few examples:

  • 55 minutes of exercise, 4 hours of light physical activity, and 11 hours of sitting
  • 13 minutes of exercise, 5.5 hours of light physical activity, and 10.3 hours of sitting
  • 3 minutes of exercise, 6 hours of light physical activity, and 9.7 hours of sitting

However, that doesn’t mean stacking up all your activity at once, Diaz emphasized. The key is to sip your movement cocktails throughout the day, rather than guzzle and be done, followed by hours and hours of sitting.

That advice falls in line with previous research that’s emphasized movement based on frequency, not just intensity. What’s new with this research is that the amount of light activity—tidying up, walking the dog, gardening, even a few minutes of stretching—can be more meaningful than you might think.

‘There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to physical activity,’ said Diaz. ‘But there should be awareness about matching your activity levels to how much sedentary behaviour you have during the day. The more you need to sit, the more often you should get these physical activity breaks into the day.’

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