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Benefits of a Two-Minute Walk

Written by: Beth Levine
The Baseline of Health Foundation

We all know how important getting regular exercise is for our health. And we've talked a number of times now about the dangers of sitting too much. But what can you do if you are stuck at a desk all day working with barely a break to eat lunch, much less make it to the gym? Many people just complain and go about their day. But another option is to stand up and walk around the office for two minutes every hour. That may not seem like it could possibly do any good, but according to new research, it just might be enough to counteract those long days of prolonged sitting.

The study, which took place at the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City, found that taking a steady walk for a two-minute period every hour may help undo some of the harmful effects associated with sitting for hours at a time. The subjects were more than 3,200 men and women involved in the United States National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Each of them wore a device that recorded the duration and intensity of any physical activity, and they were tracked for three years.

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Over the course of the trial, 137 of the participants died. When all of the data was compiled and analyzed, the scientists were able to assess the relative health benefits of very low-intensity activity, such as standing up for an extended period of time. They also evaluated any potential benefits of slightly more vigorous but still light-intensity exercises, such as walking.

The findings showed that standing up, even for a lengthy duration, does not appear to provide any protection from the detriments of sitting for hours. However, small two-minute breaks that involve activities such as walking, cleaning, and gardening were found to increase longevity in those who spend most of the day seated. In fact, spending those two minutes an hour doing some type of light activity rather than sitting was associated with a 33 percent lower risk of early death.

Now, of course, if you are pretty much sedentary all day, every day, those two minutes per hour are not going to get you fit and healthy. They might reverse a little of the damage prolonged sitting can do, but they are not going to be any kind of magic bullet to ward off disease. Then again, a 33 percent lower risk of early death is nothing to sneeze at. But keep in mind that sitting all day long was linked in a 2011 study at the American Institute for Cancer Research with a greater likelihood of developing cancer. And another 2011 study at the University of Queensland in Australia found that people who moved the least during working hours had the most risk factors for both heart disease and diabetes.

The point of the current research is that getting up and walking for two minutes an hour may help counteract some of the negative effects of sitting for so long. But it is no panacea. If you are in a job that has you sitting at the computer or poring over paperwork at a desk all day, by all means take that hourly walk. Set an alarm on your phone if you must to remind yourself. It will get your blood circulating, stretch your muscles a little, and, if the studies are correct, provide some health benefits. Just don't make the mistake of believing that this is enough.

To truly be healthy, we need lots more exercise than two minutes per hour. So find time--whether it is early in the morning, during a lunch break, or in the evening after work--to get in a real workout. Go for a walk, jog, bike ride, or swim. Any type of cardiovascular activity will help you lose weight and lower your risk of all kinds of illnesses. Interval training is even better. And set aside a little time for strength training and flexibility routines for a well-rounded approach to fitness. Shoot for a total of 30 minutes each day--not a lot to ask to help you greatly improve your odds of living a long and healthy life.