How often should you break up sitting time whilst studying?

Sitting down for extended periods of time isn’t good for our health. But the research suggests we might need to be taking more regular breaks, every 30 minutes. I think for this to happen, we need to rethink our workflows and study/work practices. I consider what changes I might need to make an example. Reading time ~ 3 minutes.

When I think of exercise and movement, I think of 3 types:

  • Formal exercise, where the intent is to be physically active (e.g. taking a walk, run, ride, weight training, sports)
  • Incidental exercise, where the intent isn’t necessarily to be exercising, but physical activity happens at the same time (e.g. gardening, housework)
  • Breaking up sedentary time, where the intent is move after a period of extended inactivity

I’m pretty good at the first two. I have formal exercise times and activities booked into my schedule and I enjoy gardening which helps me get a little extra movement during the week.

But my role (eMental Health Project Officer), and general love of computers and living behind a screen means I clock up large amounts of sedentary time during the day. It isn’t unheard of me to sit down at 9am and not move much until midday.

Because of this I am curious about ways to break up this sedentary time. For example, I have a standing desk and I go through periods of being quite diligent in using it (currently is not one of those periods 🙄)

Thus, I was interested to read about some research looking at how often we should break up sitting time. The research was discussed on the Conversation.

“We asked 11 healthy middle-aged and older adults to sit in our lab for eight hours – representing a standard workday – over the course of five separate days. On one of those days, participants sat for the entire eight hours with only short breaks to use the bathroom. On the other days, we tested a number of different strategies to break up a person’s sitting with light walking. For example, on one day, participants walked for one minute every half-hour. On another day, they walked for five minutes every hour.”

They found that the optimal ratio of sitting to walking, for reducing blood pressure and blood sugar levels, was 5 minutes of light walking for every 30 minutes of sitting.

At first, I was ‘cool, it’s nice to see some specific evidence-based suggestions’ but I quickly realised I’d need to rethink my workflows if I was to achieve this. If I am immersed in a piece of work, I’m reluctant to break my concentration at the 30-minute mark to take a light walk, as enjoyable as that would be. I realised that for this to work for me I’d need to do the following:

  1. Use some kind of timer (e.g pomodoro) in order to alert me to start and stop times.
  2. Start with 5 minutes every hour first and then try to work backwards from that. I think I’d find taking breaks every 30 minutes frustrating initially.
  3. Have alternatives to just walking for the 5-minute break. For me, this would be housework or gardening.
  4. Frame the 5-minute break as both an opportunity for movement AND an opportunity to do something that contributes meaningfully to the work (or to some other goal).
    1. If I am trying to learn something, I could engage in retrieval practice whilst moving
    2. If I am working on something creative, I could use the 5 minutes to brainstorm different solutions
    3. If I am working on something frustrating, I could use the 5 minutes to distract me or clear my mind
    4. If I feel my concentration/ attention is waning I could ensure my break involves time in nature
    5. If I am feeling isolated, I could use the five minutes to text a friend or colleague
    6. If I have housework or gardening jobs that I have been putting off, I could use the 5 minutes to do them

The takeaway point is that if you are concerned about the amount of time you spend sitting in relation to your studies/work, introducing regular movement throughout the day appears to be beneficial BUT you may need to adjust or modify your workflows and study practices to cater for the shift in time allocation. If taking a 5-minute break walk break for every 30 minutes of work is just a nuisance I think you will abandon it. Instead, look for ways to utilise the 5-minute break to enhance your work processes or to achieve other goals.

I’m going to see if I can introduce some more regular movement breaks into my day, with the goal of improving my garden and house maintenance. How about you?

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