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ACS study: even light levels of physical activity provide benefits

​Replacing 30 minutes a day of sitting time with light activity linked with a longer life expectancy

A new study from ACS researchers finds that even light levels of physical activity are healthier than just sitting. Light physical activity includes walking slowly, playing pool, croquet, fishing, and light housework such as cooking, dusting, ironing, folding laundry, washing dishes, and putting away groceries.

The study found that replacing 30 minutes a day of sitting time with light activity was linked with a longer life expectancy. More intense activity was linked with even greater health benefits. The study was published March 25, 2019, in American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Lots of research links physical activity with a lower risk of certain cancers, heart disease, and death. Research also shows that long hours spent sitting, no matter how much exercise you get otherwise, is linked with a higher risk of disease and death. That prompted the American Cancer Society to study the effect of replacing sitting time with light levels of activity, and with moderate-to-vigorous levels of activity. Examples of moderate activity include brisk walking and dancing. Vigorous activity includes jogging, running, and soccer.

The study included almost 38,000 men and almost 55,000 women in the Cancer Prevention Study-II Nutrition Cohort from 1999 - 2014.

Among those who got 17 minutes a day or less of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity – the least active group -- replacing 30 minutes of sitting a day with light physical activity was linked with a 14% lowered risk of dying during the study period. Replacing sitting with moderate-to-vigorous physical activity was linked with a 45% lower risk of dying. For the most active group, those who got more than 38 minutes a day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, the researchers did not see a benefit.

Participants reporting more moderate/vigorous physical activity were leaner, had a higher educational attainment, and were less likely to be current smokers. For all participants, sitting time largely included watching TV (39%) and reading (20%).

The authors conclude that replacing small amounts of sitting time with even light physical activity may help less active adults live longer, including older adults. Erika Rees-Punia, PhD, lead author of the study and Post-Doctoral Fellow at the American Cancer Society, suggests less active adults should include more light activities during their leisure time, as well as working it into their work and home routines.

The study did have some limitations: it relied on self-reported physical activity and sitting time; it lacked information on certain activities of daily living, e.g., cleaning, self-care, cooking, that are particularly common for older adults. And participants were predominately white and educated, so may not represent the general U.S. population.

Get more light activity into your life

  • Instead of watching TV, walk your dog or spend time on a hobby such as gardening.
  • Even if you do watch TV, get a little activity at the same time. Stand up and fold laundry, do a few simple exercises or stretches while you watch, or get up and do something during commercials instead of skipping through them.
  • At work, take short breaks to walk around the office building, take the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator, use the farthest bathroom from your desk, walk to a co-worker's office instead of emailing, or have a walking meeting.
  • When running errands, park farther from the building. If you take public transportation, get off one stop earlier or later than usual. 

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