From head to toe, our bodies adapt to accommodate our devices. The majority of American workers spend most of the week sitting and staring at screens. We thus found ourselves in the middle of a slow-onset health crisis, marked by alarming rates of early-onset diabetes and hypertension. Plus, at the end of most days – although that’s not preferred medical terminology – we feel like crap.
Many of us ignore the insistent, buzzing reminders from our smartwatches to get up and move. Others work out before heading to our office, mistakenly thinking that morning sweat makes up for hours spent sitting. And then there are the fans of the standing desk, which unfortunately also does not resolve our glycemic and lipid irregularities.
After determining the minimum amount of movement needed to offset the harms of our sedentary lifestyle, researchers at Columbia University Medical Center found that five minutes of gentle walking every half hour was enough.
Is it possible to add regular movement breaks to our deadline-filled days? Sure, we might be able to tolerate exercise, but what about interruptions? We asked National Public Radio listeners to participate in a study by the same Columbia researchers to see if they could fit regular movement breaks, or “snacks,” into their day. More than 20,000 people signed up (which almost crashed the system).
Here’s what we discovered:
• Movement also interrupts improvement in mental health. Participants were in better moods on days they took breaks, reporting more positive emotions and fewer negative feelings. They also felt more energetic, reporting an average 25% reduction in fatigue.
• Breaks did not affect job performance. Participants reported feeling more engaged in their work and showed slight improvements in the quantity and quality of work on days they took movement breaks.
• It is difficult to make time for frequent breaks. Many participants found it difficult to take breaks from their daily routine every half hour. Only 50% reported being able to take breaks that often. Frequently cited barriers included pressure to be productive at work, feeling too busy to take a break, and fear of disrupting workplace cultural norms.
Participants found that taking movement breaks every hour or two was more realistic and less disruptive to their daily lives, with 70-80% of participants reporting taking regular breaks at these intervals. However, feeling too busy and pressures to perform at work were still regularly reported as barriers, even to these less frequent breaks.
Our results show that public interest and participation in research are essential to identifying barriers to movement interruptions and developing concrete solutions. But we hope this project will also accelerate a broader conversation about a cultural reset, which would require a collective effort. We should not be willing to sacrifice our overall mental and physical well-being just because society has come to view constant sitting as the norm.
Now that everyone knows that too much sitting is bad, what if it was okay to get up in the middle of a never-ending Zoom meeting and move from side to side? Instead of scolding kids about how much screen time they spend, what if we asked them if they were entitled to their “walk time” each day?
We used to schedule smoke breaks, and these days, few of us care if someone in a meeting is looking at their phone. Behaviors, good and bad, are often contagious, but we need workplaces and schools to willingly collaborate to make time and space for movement. Our institutions must encourage anyone wishing to change their relationship with their chair and their devices.
The World Health Organization estimates that if we remain so sedentary, nearly 500 million people will develop heart disease, obesity, diabetes or other noncommunicable diseases this decade, costing governments 27 billion dollars per year. Just as important, we will tolerate the disembodied way that many of us currently live, denying the next generation the simple joys of feeling strong, healthy, and mobile.
Manoush Zomorodi is the author of “Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self.” Keith Diaz is director of the exercise testing laboratory at the Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health at Columbia. ©2023 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.