Here’s How Much Exercise You Need to Counteract Sitting All Day, Says Study

Glued to your desk all day? We can relate. Studies show that just this much movement can help keep your muscles strong and your heart healthy.

Have to sit on your tush all day? If you find that your life is more sedentary than you might like, don’t fret—just sweat! Recent research has been showing that specific periods of exercise can help to reverse a day of sitting—and no, it doesn’t require you to be in the gym for hours at a time.

The Washington Post covered a recent study that demonstrated how much exercise can possibly counteract a day of sitting. The study followed astronauts from the International Space Station, as well as 34 participants in Houston who volunteered for 70 days to be bed-bound in “head-down tilt bed rest,” which the Washington Post explains “is science’s best simulation of space travel.”

While being weightless in space can make it difficult to maintain bone density and muscle mass, the researchers discovered that exercise can deflect the effects of sitting for hours. Specifically, for one hour, six days a week, the participants ran sprints on a treadmill or briskly rode an exercise bike for 30 minutes and performed “squats, leg presses, heel raises and leg curls, using weights heavy enough that they could barely finish eight to 12 repetitions.”

The results? After 70 days, the participants had largely retained their muscle mass and cardiovascular endurance—even after 23 hours per day of being sedentary.

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How exercise reverses the effects of sitting

But what does this mean for those of us strictly on planet Earth? A 2020 meta-analysis published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that even slightly less activity can be effective. A group of sports medicine and public health researchers evaluated the physical activity of more than 44,000 participants who used a fitness tracker to determine the risk of death for those living a sedentary life, versus a routine of regular physical activity. The researchers found that exercising up to 40 minutes per day may actually offset 10 hours of sitting when the activity can be described as “moderate to vigorous intensity” for at least 40 minutes.

According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health‘s blog, “moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity” is defined as “moving fast enough or strenuously enough to burn off three to six times as much energy per minute.” Moderate activities can include walking briskly, household or outdoor chores and light biking. Vigorous activity can include hiking, jogging, carrying heavy loads, biking fast and recreational sports.

What are the “effects of sitting,” anyway?

Sitting all day can actually increase the risk of a few main chronic diseases—which is why some health professionals have begun to call sitting “the new smoking.” Not only does a sedentary life increase the chances of gaining weight, but it has also been linked with illnesses like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, some cancers, and even mental health issues, like anxiety and depression.

So it’s encouraging that this research has found moving the body can possibly “reverse” those likelihoods, along with the risk of premature death.

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Easy trainer tips to get moving after sitting all day

We asked Tony Horton, the founder of P90X and PowerLife, whether he could recommend another way to balance the effects of hours of sitting. One possibility? A desk treadmill can be an easy way to get in movement while you’re working, while also promoting cardiovascular wellness.

If that’s not plausible, Horton recommends taking short breaks to get some movement. “Taking short breaks and moving throughout the day is highly beneficial for many reasons,” he says. “I recommend taking short five- to 10-minute walks outdoors if you can. Movement coupled with fresh air can improve your mood, boost cognitive function, and alleviate muscle stiffness you may be experiencing from sitting all day.”

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Horton also says it’s important to start with stretching after a day of sitting before doing any type of workout. “After a day that is primarily sedentary—travel, work, etc.—I recommend focusing on stretching the upper and lower back, hips and legs,” says Horton. “Slow and focused yoga positions, such as downward dog into cobra followed by a few cat/cow moves great for stretching and lengthening the back.”

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After the body is warmed up, Horton says a simple set of exercises can reverse the effect of sitting all day. “I recommend squats to work the leg muscles, and alternating lunges to open up the hips. Lastly, any kind of cardio is great for offsetting a day of inactivity. This can be anything from walking for 15 to 30 minutes—like with the 12-3-30 workout—to running or HIIT workouts to get your heart rate up.”

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Medically reviewed by Latoya Julce RN, BSN, on January 06, 2023

Kiersten Hickman
Kiersten Hickman is a journalist and content strategist with a main focus on nutrition, health, and wellness coverage. She holds an MA in Journalism from DePaul University and a Nutrition Science certificate from Stanford Medicine. Her work has been featured in publications including Taste of Home, Reader's Digest, Bustle, Buzzfeed, INSIDER, MSN, Eat This, Not That!, and more.