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Sitting Too Much? Gradually Boost Your Activity Level Each Day

by Howard LeWine, M.D.

Q. I sit at a desk all day at work. My doctor tells me I need to exercise for 30 minutes at least five times per week. I don’t exercise at all now. That seems an impossible goal for me. Any suggestions?

A.Similar to your doctor, that’s just what I’ve been saying to my patients for years. That is, strive for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise spread out over a week. But the reality is that fewer than 20 percent of adults actually do that much exercise.

It’s time we change the message, especially for people like you who lead very sedentary lives. Doing any amount of physical activity during the day is better than sitting or lying in bed.

In fact, there’s no proof that 150 minutes of exercise per week is the ideal amount for an average adult. But we do know that the more time we spend on our feet and moving improves our health.

It’s a dose-response relationship. The more time we spend not sitting, the greater our chance of maintaining good health. That includes lower risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and certain types of cancer. In addition, our muscles and bones will stay stronger just by standing and walking slowly often throughout the day.

Ask yourself: “How much time do I spend sitting and lying down during the day?” Include the time you sleep. Subtract the total from 24 hours. That’s the number of minutes or hours you have left for doing “light activity,” such as standing, walking and climbing stairs.

Here’s an even more accurate way to compute the number. Starting tomorrow morning:

1. Write down the time that you get out of bed and write, “UP” next to the time.

2. Every moment you sit or lie down during the day, write down the time and next to it write, “DOWN.”

3. Each time you get up, write the time again and next to it write, “UP.”

Do this on two different days – one day at work or school, and one day at home.

Instead of reaching a specific goal, try to gradually increase the number of minutes per day you are “UP” over the next several weeks.

Another option: Consider buying a fitness tracker that you wear like a watch. Or download a fitness-tracker app for your smartphone. It can keep track of your physical activity. Some will vibrate or beep if you’ve been sitting too long.

Howard LeWine, M.D., is a practicing internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Chief Medical Editor of Internet Publishing at Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School.

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