Walk the break

Taking a short stroll around your workplace every hour could make you happier and healthier, says Gretchen Reynolds

By Gretchen Reynolds
  • Published 25.10.17

Stuck at your desk? Standing up and walking around for five minutes every hour could lift your mood, combat lethargy without reducing focus and attention, and even dull hunger pangs, according to an instructive new study. It also found that frequent, brief walking breaks were more effective at improving well-being than a single, longer walk before work.

There is growing evidence, of course, that long bouts of uninterrupted sitting can have undesirable consequences. Studies have shown that it reduces blood flow to the legs, increasing the risk for atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaques in the arteries. People who sit for more than eight or nine hours daily, which for many of us describes a typical workday, also are at heightened risk for diabetes, depression and obesity compared with people who move more often.

In response, researchers and some bosses have proposed a variety of methods for helping people reduce their sitting time at work, including standing workstations and treadmill desks. But such options are cumbersome and costly, making them impractical for work situations.

Some experts have worried, too, that if people are physically active at the office, they might subsequently become more tired, grumpy, distracted or hungry, any of which could have an undesirable effect on work performance and long-term health.

So for the new study, which was published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, researchers from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center, the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute and other institutions decided to test several methods of increasing movement among office workers.

To start, the researchers invited 30 sedentary office workers to a clinic to complete a battery of health tests and questionnaires. They measured their heart rates and stress hormone levels and asked them to rank, on a numerical scale, how energetic or tired they felt, as well as how happy they were, and whether they were feeling peckish or had little appetite just then.

The volunteers also completed computerised games designed to test their ability to concentrate and make decisions. Then, on three subsequent visits to the clinic, each volunteer simulated a six-hour workday. During one visit, the volunteers sat for the whole time with no interruptions, except for bathroom breaks.

During another, they walked moderately for 30 minutes at the start of their experimental day, and then sat for the next five and a half hours.

During a third visit, the volunteers sat for most of the six hours, but began each hour with five minutes of moderate walking, using treadmills.

At the start and end of each session, the researchers drew blood to check levels of stress hormones. And throughout each day, they asked their volunteers to numerically rate their moods, energy, fatigue and appetites. The volunteers also repeated the computerised testing of their thinking skills at the close of each session.

The numbers showed that on almost all measures, the subjects' ratings of how they were feeling rose when they did not sit for six uninterrupted hours. They said they felt much more energetic throughout the day if they had been active, whether that activity was bunched into a single longish walk at the start of the day or distributed into multiple brief breaks.

On other measures, though, the five-minute walks were more potent than the 30-minute version. When the workers rose most often, they reported greater happiness, less fatigue and considerably less craving for food. Their feelings of vigour also tended to increase throughout the day, while they often had plateaued by early afternoon after walking once in the morning. There were no differences on the cognitive tests, whether they sat all day or got up and moved. Stress hormones remained steady too.

These results suggest that "a little bit of activity, spread throughout the day, is a practical, easy way to improve well-being," says Jack Groppel, study author and founder of the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute. He suggests that you devote five minutes every hour to physical activity, whether you walk up and down a staircase, along a corridor or just pace around your office.

It's clear that moving matters.