Emily Mailey, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology, and director of the Physical Activity Intervention Research Lab, at Kansas State University.
You’ve probably heard this official recommendation dozens of times (if not more): For good health, engage in moderate physical activity, like brisk walking, for at least 150 minutes per week. More physical activity lowers high blood pressure, cuts the risk of death from heart disease or stroke, decreases the risk of several cancers, helps prevent and control prediabetes and diabetes, prevents falls, relieves depression and anxiety, and boosts memory and concentration.
But here’s a fact about activity very few doctors and health researchers are telling you: You can get many of the same types of health benefits just by standing up.
Scientific research shows that the simple act of standing up from a sitting or lying down position—particularly if you stand up repeatedly during the day and stay standing for a little while—is very good for you. That’s because sedentary behavior—spending a long time sitting and barely moving—is an independent risk factor for poor health. In other words, exercising too little is bad for you—but so is sitting too much.
On average, Americans spend half their waking hours in sedentary behavior, particularly sitting at work, school, and home, while driving, and in restaurants and movie theaters. In a recent survey of nearly 6,000 people conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 percent said they spent more than eight to 10 hours a day sitting—the level of sedentary behavior that puts you most at risk for poor health.
Sitting hurts your health for several reasons. When you’re sedentary and expending low levels of energy for a long period of time, your body essentially shuts down its metabolic machinery. You generate fewer of the enzymes that stimulate the metabolism of fats for fuel. The heart pumps less blood. Your breathing becomes shallower. The muscles in your legs and buttocks—which burn most of your calories—burn far fewer.
In a study published in The Lancet, researchers reviewed data from 13 studies on sedentary behavior involving more than 1 million people and found that people who sat for more than eight hours a day with no physical activity had a risk of dying similar to that of smokers.
Excessive sitting can also make you sick. It puts you at a higher risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and several cancers (breast, colon, endometrial, and ovarian). Sitting too much is also linked to increased depression and anxiety.
While sitting is bad for you, standing is good: Recent research shows that simply standing up decreases several of the risks from sedentary behavior.
In a study published in the February 2021 issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers looked at 33 studies that analyzed the effects of standing. They found that the people who stood more lost body fat and weight, had trimmer waistlines, lowered systolic blood pressure and insulin, and increased HDL, the “good” cholesterol that moves heart-hurting fats out of the artery into the liver for disposal. The changes were small, but they were significant in terms of better health. The more sedentary the person, the bigger the benefit. If you’re sitting a lot each day and not exercising at all, standing is going to do you a lot of good.
In another recent study, published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, researchers found that standing—and nothing more—was linked to better insulin sensitivity in people with blood sugar problems, reducing their risk of type 2 diabetes.
So how do you sit less and stand more? It’s easy. In a study published in the February 2022 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers from Kansas State University were able to reduce occupational sitting by up to 206 minutes a day in 95 university employees who were working at home. Here are some of the ways they did it.
If you sit a lot, your goal might be to stand up for one minute every 30 minutes throughout the day. Write that goal down and, as you take your breaks throughout the day, check off your accomplishment.
Behavioral scientists say this type of self-monitoring and accountability is an effective way to increase “self-efficacy”—the ability to make a behavioral change.
Even better than just standing up is standing and moving around a bit, or what the researchers call engaging in light activity:
Even with the best intentions to stand up more during the day, it’s easy to forget your goal—for example, because you’re so wrapped up in what you’re doing that you lose your sense of time. To counter this all-too-human tendency, use a reminder on your computer or smartphone.
Apps for the computer suggested in the Kansas State University study included Time Out, TomatoTimer, BreakTimer, and Big Stretch Reminder. Apps for the phone included 1 Minute Desk Workout, Randomly RemindMe, and Stand Up! The Work Break Timer.
Sometimes, a timer doesn’t work because you’re in the middle of a task and can’t stop, so use other cues, too. When you finish writing an email—stand up. After a meeting—stand up and walk around for a few minutes. When you’re on the phone—stand up and stroll.
The most effective intervention in the study was a height-adjustable desk that allowed people to stand up as they worked. If a height-adjustable desk isn’t in your budget, you can put an object such as an upside-down Rubbermaid tub on top of your existing desk or use a laptop computer placed on a counter top.
The goal is to make small changes that reduce your sedentary behavior. If you’re not used to standing for a long time, don’t strain by immediately trying to stand for four to eight hours at your desk. Rather, switch postures frequently and work up to standing longer. You may find that you’ll gain many short-term benefits, too. Study participants noted less low-back pain, less leg pain, less fatigue, and more ability to focus.