We’ve got some unfortunate news for you. Are you sitting down? Perhaps you shouldn’t be …
A new cross-sectional meta-study by an international team of researchers has ranked the movements and positioning we commonly engage in each and every day in order of benefit to your heart.
The short of it is that almost anything you do is going to be better than sitting all day. Even calling it a day and turning in early.
Far from suggesting we all ditch the office chair for a comfortable recliner, the study backs up advice that says even small changes in activity can add up to a big improvement in our cardiovascular health. It just so happens that a good sleep routine is slightly better than sitting up all night binging Netflix’s latest crime documentary.
“The big takeaway from our research is that while small changes to how you move can have a positive effect on heart health, intensity of movement matters,” says the study’s first author, University College London epidemiologist Jo Blodgett.
“The most beneficial change we observed was replacing sitting with moderate to vigorous activity – which could be a run, a brisk walk, or stair climbing – basically any activity that raises your heart rate and makes you breathe faster, even for a minute or two.”
Cardiovascular conditions are currently our number one killer, claiming just under 18 million lives each year in the form of heart attacks, strokes, and other diseases involving our heart and blood vessels.
While some bodies are predisposed to having a dodgy ticker, modern lifestyles across the world certainly don’t make our heart’s job any easier, with physical inactivity, poor diet, tobacco use, and alcohol consumption being significant risk factors.
Eating healthily, cutting out the cigarettes and limiting the nightly vino are a good start, but a daily commute to a mentally taxing office job means it’s all too easy for many people to spend most of the day in a seated position.
To better understand the relationship between different kinds of movement, researchers combined data from six studies on more than 15,000 participants, providing insights on the impact sedentary behavior, standing, light and moderately vigorous activity, and sleep had on various measures of heart health.
In what ought to come as a shock to nobody by now, sitting down all day is practically the worst thing we can do for measures of our cardiovascular health, including our body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference, cholesterol, and glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c), which is a marker for type 2 diabetes.
Yet improving on these stats doesn’t take huge changes. For example, if you happen to be a 54-year-old woman with a BMI of 26.5, swapping the office chair every now and then for a standing desk – even if it’s just half an hour a day – could reduce your BMI by 2.4 percent.
Fill that half an hour with a brisk walk that gets the pulse pounding and you could see a drop in waist measurements of around 2.5 centimeters, and a decrease in HbA1c of around 3.6 percent.
Reallocating any time spent sleeping, standing, or sitting to light or moderately-vigorous physical activity was found to be a big win for cardiovascular health.
On the other hand, if the choice is limited to either sitting on the couch for one more episode of Black Mirror or getting a good night’s rest, sleep should get the priority.
In line with previous studies linking heart health with a decent sleep schedule, the data reflected a small but significant improvement in high density lipoproteins (‘good’ cholesterol) when roughly an hour and a half of sitting was replaced with sleep.
In an ideal world, we’d all be ditching work meetings for long hikes, a swim, a spot of cycling, and then home for a long night of fitful slumber.
But even in an imperfect world, we can choose to stand on the train, take the stairs, and turn off the light a little earlier at night in the name of giving our hearts a slightly longer lease on life.
This research was published in the European Heart Journal.