The Magic of 20 Minutes of Exercise

We’ve got some especially good news if you’re stuck in a chair all day for work (or if you just really, really like TV).

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Ten bucks says you’re sitting as you read this article. Am I right?

It’s a safe bet: As Americans, we spend a heck of a lot of time on our butts, whether we’re stuck in front of our computers at work, scrolling through our Instagrams, or enjoying a little bit of Netflix. So it’s no surprise that the total amount of time we spend sitting has actually increased in the last decade, according to new research published in JAMA.

Obviously, all this sitting around isn’t exactly great for our health: In fact, the more time you spend on your tush, the higher your risk of heart disease and death. Yikes. But not all hope is lost, my fellow desk-bound workers: Getting just 20 to 40 minutes a day of physical activity can offset that risk, according to another new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Why do we sit so much?

Adults are now parked on their butts almost 6.5 hours a day, and teens are chair surfing a whopping 8 hours daily (hello, Fortnite!), according to a national survey of nearly 52,000 people. Both groups increased their sitting time by a hour between 2007 and 2016, according to the JAMA study.

It’s not hard to figure out why we’re doing all of this sitting around, seeing as technology is so heavily ingrained in our daily lives. According to the research, nearly two-thirds of kids, teens, and adults watch TV or videos for at least two hours a day. Researchers also discovered significant increases in the number of people spending an hour or more at their computers just for fun--in fact for adults, that number nearly doubled to 50%.

Get moving to reduce your risk

It may seem obvious that being more active would help you spend less time in your chair, but the Journal of the American College of Cardiology study is the first to try to estimate the effects of replacing sitting with other activities (like standing, being physically active, or sleeping).

"Previous studies have not considered that a 24-hour day is finite and an increase in any type of physical activity or sedentary behavior would displace another activity or sleep," said lead study author Emmanuel Stamatakis, Ph.D., professor of physical activity, lifestyle, and population health at the University of Sydney in Australia, in a press release.

Researchers asked 150,000 Australian adults age 45 and up to share how much time they spent sitting, standing, sleeping, and participating in different types of physical activity each day. The participants were followed over nearly nine years to track mortality rates. Results showed that sitting for more than six hours a day was associated with higher rates of death from all causes, including heart disease. However, the deaths were mostly among people who didn’t meet physical-activity recommendations (that’s 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity physical activity, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Among the people who were active in some regular way, the risk was mitigated, especially for those who exercised vigorously (think hiking, running, or playing soccer).

"Our results support continued efforts to promote physical activity in those segments of the population that sit a lot for whatever reason," Dr. Stamatakis said in a press release. And it’s not enough to just spend less time sitting, he says — you actually need to get your heart pumping somehow.

The good news is that you don’t have to become a triathlete to reap the benefits. Get your 20 to 40 minutes in each day with these moderate and vigorous activities recommended by the CDC:

Moderate-intensity aerobic activities:

  • Brisk walking
  • Working in your garden
  • Biking (less than 10 miles per hour)
  • Ballroom dancing
  • Water aerobics

Vigorous-intensity aerobic activities:

  • Jogging or running
  • Swimming laps
  • Jumping rope
  • Hiking
  • Biking (more than 10 miles per hour)

And remember: You can also mix and match your moderate and vigorous activities to reach the recommended goal for the week. Try to pick activities you enjoy. If you’re totally new to exercise, there’s nothing wrong with good old-fashioned brisk walking — and listening to a podcast or your favorite music along the way can make the time fly.

See more helpful articles:

Study Busts Major Myths About Workplace Wellness Programs

5 Best Exercises for Joint Pain

Healthy Snacks to Eat After Your Workout