Can physical activity offset the health risks of too much sitting?

In findings that could relieve desk-bound office workers, a weekly dose of at least 150 minutes of physical activity could substantially reduce or offset the mortality risks in ‘high sitters’, according to new research using data from the Sax Institute’s 45 and Up Study.

Sitting is often touted as ‘the new smoking’, but it is unclear if it is the sitting itself or the lack of physical activity that causes the harm. It has also been unclear what level of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity – routine activities like walking briskly to work, as well as sport and exercises – might offset this risk.

New research has examined the associations of sitting and physical activitiy with premature death and cardiovascular disease mortality, and estimated what level of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity might offset health risks of sitting.

The researchers statistically modelled physical activity and sitting against death records of nearly 150,000 participants in the Sax Institute’s 45 and Up Study and followed up over almost nine years.

The study’s key message is that physical activity is particularly important for people who sit a lot. Reducing sitting would be a good start but is not enough: the most important lifestyle change for such people would be to look for or create opportunities to move more daily.

Replacing sitting with physical activity – but not standing – reduced mortality risk among ‘high sitters’, people who sit over six hours per day, said lead author Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis, from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre and Prevention Research Collaboration in the School of Public Health.

“In our study, sitting time was associated consistently with both overall premature mortality and cardiovascular disease mortality in the least physically active groups – those doing under 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity per week,” Professor Stamatakis said.

“For example, people who were physically inactive and sat for more than eight hours per day had 107 percent higher risk for cardiovascular death compared to those who did at least one hour physical activity per day and sat less than four hours.”

“But one hour of physical activity per day is not necessary. Meeting the Australian public health recommendation of 150 to 300 minutes per week – equivalent to around 20-40 minutes per day on average – appeared to eliminate sitting risks.”

Physical activity doses equivalent to meeting the basic current recommendations – at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity per week – were found to reduce or effectively eliminate associations between sitting and both cardiovascular and overall mortality risk.

Professor Stamatakis said the findings would be useful for public health officials, health care workers, but also people who sit a lot, such as workers in office-based and other sedentary jobs.

“Any movement is good for health but physical activity of moderate to vigorous intensity – that is activities that get people out of breath– is the most potent and most time-efficient,” Professor Stamatakis said.

“Exercise and sports are a great way to be active but are not the only way – walking fast, climbing stairs, and cycling to get from place to place are only some of the many opportunities everyday life offers to move and even ‘huff and puff’ sometimes.”

Sax Institute Deputy CEO Dr Martin McNamara said the 45 and Up Study continues to reveal new insights about the health of Australians.

“By following participants now for over 10 years the study is driving important new findings – in this case the amount of physical activity needed to offset the risks of sitting,” he said.

Click here to access the study.


About the Sax Institute
The Sax Institute is an independent Australian leader in helping decision makers find and make best use of research to solve real-world health and social problems. It is a non-profit, public good organisation with a membership base of over 50 public health and health services research groups and their universities. The 2018 Research Action Awards were open to Sax Institute member organisations who conduct public health or health services research.

About the 45 and Up Study
Established in 2004, the 45 and Up Study is one of the largest ongoing studies of healthy ageing in the world, involving more than a quarter of a million NSW men and women. The Study, managed by the Sax Institute, aims to provide a complete picture of health as people move from mid to later life, allowing governments and health policy makers to better plan health services and programs for our ageing population. Data from the Study has already been used in over 200 published research papers and is helping us to better understand the causes and outcomes of conditions such as cancer, heart disease, arthritis, depression and obesity.

Hugo Wilcken, Media Manager, Sax Institute
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