Desk-bound workers need additional exercise to counter health impacts of sitting, new study says

A graphic shows a man sulking at his desk while working from home.

A graphic shows a man sulking at his desk while working from home. (CNN)


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ATLANTA — Tired of sitting at that desk all day long? Turns out it's not good for your health, either, according to a new study published in JAMA Network Open.

People who predominantly sit at work have a 16% higher risk of mortality from all causes, and a 34% higher risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease. To counteract the increased risk, individuals who sit a lot at work would have to engage in an additional 15 to 30 minutes of physical activity per day to reduce their risk to that of individuals who do not predominantly sit, researchers estimate.

"I'm not surprised by the gist of the study, though the magnitude of effect is large and certainly should be a call to action," said Dr. Leana Wen, emergency physician and adjunct associate professor at George Washington University.

For years, we have known that prolonged sitting has negative health impacts — that it increases the risk of chronic diseases including obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular death. Studies have also shown that even light activity to break up the periods of prolonged sitting can reduce that risk. One 2023 Columbia University study found that people who engaged in light activity for just five minutes every 30 minutes had an almost 60% reduction in blood sugar spikes after a meal. Those who did just one minute of exercise every 30 minutes experienced a drop in blood pressure.

Importantly, the exercise that people engaged in for that study was not intensive. Rather, it was a slow walk on the treadmill at 1.9 miles per hour, which is slower than most people walk.

Another 2023 study found that replacing 30 minutes of sedentary activity with very light activity, like walking or standing, led to improvements in key measures, such as body mass index and cholesterol levels. Higher-intensity exercise had a bigger benefit, but the key here is that light activity for small periods of time produced a difference, too.

The new JAMA Network Open study is significant because it involves so many participants — more than 480,000 — and researchers followed them over an average time of nearly 13 years. They also adjusted for sex, age, education, smoking and drinking status, as well as BMI and found a pronounced difference in all-cause mortality and especially mortality from cardiovascular disease.


To me, the main takeaway is that some exercise is better than none.

– Dr. Leana Wen


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate to high-intensity exercise a week, Wen explained. That amounts to about 22 minutes a day, or if people are exercising, say, five times a week, it's about 30 minutes each time. Ideally, she said, people can set aside time to walk briskly, jog, ride a bike, work out on the elliptical machine or otherwise commit time to exercise for at least that amount of time per week.

"Many desk workers already engage in some version of these activities, but they can work to increase the duration and intensity of the activities," Wen added. "Instead of walking around the neighborhood once before dinner, what about walking around twice? Instead of going to the gym twice a week, what about three times? Could they park a few blocks farther and walk faster to get to work and back? These small changes can add up."

A very small amount of light physical activity during work hours can improve health, the studies cited above show. These are sometimes called "exercise snacks." Wen says some things people can do include getting up every 30 minutes or an hour to stretch or walk around their office — or for people who work at home, their home, apartment corridor or yard. They could hold a plank or do jumping jacks. Those with more mobility challenges can still do stretches like side bends and twists in their chair. Breathing exercises that deeply engage the diaphragm could help, too.

People who predominantly sit at work have a 16% higher risk of mortality from all causes, and a 34% higher risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease, according to a new JAMA study.
People who predominantly sit at work have a 16% higher risk of mortality from all causes, and a 34% higher risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease, according to a new JAMA study. (Photo: UvGroup, Shutterstock)

Even if people can't do 150 minutes right off the bat, a study published last year found that just half of the recommended amount of exercise made a big impact on improving health. Wen said people who met the 150 minutes a week threshold will see the most significant benefit. Just 75 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise activity per week (about 11 minutes a day) was associated with a 23% lower risk of premature death, the study states. It also reduced the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and cancer.

"To me, the main takeaway is that some exercise is better than none," the doctor said. "More is better, if that's possible, but people who currently have sedentary lifestyles shouldn't be intimidated."

And experts advise daily or regular exercise is best, as prolonged inactivity has health risks.

Medications, too, should not be used in place of regular exercise, Wen said, adding, "Fitness and physical activity are key components of living healthily and well."

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Katia Hetter

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