From Sitting to Moving … Make the Switch!
Most of us know that exercise is a top factor in keeping us healthy as we grow older. Yet many well-intentioned, health-conscious older adults are unaware that even if they work out regularly, their health can still be harmed if they spend the rest of the day sitting around, whether it’s surfing the web while moving nothing but our wrist all evening, a day of couch potato mode in front of the TV, or knitting for hours. Or maybe you’re one of the increasing number of seniors who have put off retirement—good for your financial health and social life, but perhaps trapping you behind a desk all day?
Multiple studies over the past decade have confirmed the dangers of prolonged sitting. Sitting down most of the day has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, joint problems, stroke, even dementia.
But there’s good news, as well! Other research shows that we can lessen the damage by breaking up those seated hours, even in small doses of time. Of course, many of those studies relied on data from questionnaires—and as you might guess, most of us tend to exaggerate the level of activity we get. But a January 2019 study, this one from Columbia University Irving Medical Center, provided even more convincing data when the research team equipped 8,000 middle-aged and older adults with activity monitors over the course of four years, and compared their health with their exercise level—both the amount and intensity.
The study results, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found that replacing just 30 minutes of sitting with low-intensity physical activity each day lowered the test subjects’ risk of early death by 17 percent. Increase the activity level to moderate to vigorous activities, and the risk was cut by 35 percent!
Not so long ago, the common wisdom was that we need to exercise for a prolonged period of time to get the best benefit. An hour-long session at the gym, a long run, an aerobics class, a fifteen-mile bike ride … we were advised to do this several times a week to get the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity physical activity.
These power workouts yield maximum fitness results. But recent studies show that we can also benefit from a number of shorter periods of activity, spread out through the day, to neutralize the dangers of sitting. The Columbia researchers said that for the people in their study, “Even short bursts of activity—of just a minute or two—provided a health benefit.”
How can we add more movement to our lives? Hide the TV remote so you have to get up to change the channel. Better yet, lift weights or walk on a treadmill while you watch. Or listen to music or a podcast while you walk around the block (remaining alert for tripping hazards, of course). Plant a garden this year. Take a dance class. Walk to the store rather than drive, if you can. Or take a bus halfway there! Go window shopping. Walk a dog. Do a little extra housework. Meet a friend for a walk instead of a trip to the doughnut shop. Talking on the phone? Stand up during that chat! If you have mobility challenges, there are plenty of chair exercises that can provide a good workout.
The first step to taking more steps is to put movement at the top of your mind. Set a timer so you’ll stretch and walk around every half hour or so. Once you overcome the habit of inertia, your body will start reminding you to take a motion break!
And remember, before you make a big change in your exercise regimen, ask your doctor for an exercise “prescription” that is safe and beneficial for you.