If you have been reading this website you know I believe the health effects of sitting are as bad as smoking a cigarette. New research, published last month, has discovered that by interrupting our time spent sitting with short walking “breaks” we can cause profound beneficial changes within some of our most important genes.
Australian scientists from the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute conducted the research, and they published it in the American Physiological Society’s Journal of Applied Physiology.
A Thorough Look At The Health Benefits of Walking On Our Genes
The participants in the study had an average age of 55 years old, were overweight or obese with an average body mass index of 30.9, and were not diabetic. They engaged in a series of three test conditions:
- A period of uninterrupted sitting
- A period of sitting broken up every 20 minutes by two minutes of light intensity walking (at 2 miles per hour)
- A period of sitting broken up every 20 minutes by two minutes of moderate intensity walking (at 3.6 miles per hour)
For conditions number two and three above, the total time walked by each participant was 28 minutes. After each trial listed above, the scientists did extensive blood chemistry tests on the participants and biopsied the quadriceps’ muscle (vastus lateralis) on the front of the thigh (ouch!) of each person.
The scientists used sophisticated technology to examine the genetic/cellular effects of taking a two minute bout of light or moderate walking during prolonged sitting on numerous important genes, and more importantly, they determined the potential health effects of these gene changes on our body.
Walking For Health — 2 Minutes At A Time
The researchers found that two minutes of light or moderate walking had a significant effect on the function of 75 genes.
This, in itself, is interesting in that even though we do not feel much different when walking for a mere two minutes (during every 20 minutes of sitting) on a genetic level dramatic changes are occurring.
Moreover, of the 75 genes affected by these walking “breaks,” the health consequences on our body were broad and affected genes involved with:
- Cardiovascular system function
- Metabolic disease
- Reproductive system development and function
- Lipid (fat) metabolism
- Endocrine function
Carbohydrate Metabolism Benefits
Of particular note, ten genes that perform carbohydrate processing were identified as having positive health affects induced by the walking “breaks.”
Light intensity walking positively impacted six carbohydrate metabolism genes and moderate intensity walking breaks had beneficial changes for an additional four genes.
The researchers also discuss how other genes, related to carbohydrate metabolism but not in the same group of ten, has an increased, beneficial effect on our health as a direct result of taking walking breaks during periods of sitting. For example:
- The function of gene COLEC12 is increased. This gene binds to carbohydrates, promoting their removal from our body.
- The enzyme gene NNMT is enhanced. It has various direct and indirect beneficial effects, including lowering triglycerides (fat), lowering inflammation, and decreasing clotting. Further, NNMT appears (from animal studies) to have an “anti-diabetic” effect, lowering blood sugar and helping to open blood arteries to promote healthy blood flow.
- The gene DYNLL1 is increased, and it is believed to have a positive effect on blood sugar regulation.
Short Walking Bouts Reduce Harmful Genes
The researchers found that 48 hours of rest increased expression of the gene USP6, which contributes to protein breakdown and atrophy of our muscles. This detrimental gene was diminished as a result of the two minute moderate walking bouts.
Of the 75 genes identified as being affected by breaking up prolonged sitting with walking breaks, they found:
- 25 genes related to cancer
- 7 genes related to cardiovascular disease
- 4 genes related to connective tissue disease
- 9 genes related to developmental disorders
The researchers’ state:
“… breaking up sedentary time reversed the effects of chronic inactivity on expression of some specific genes.”
“We have identified candidate genes that are likely to contribute to the improvements in glucose and cardiometabolic risk markers associated with the breaking up of sedentary time.”
This research shows the powerful effects of just two minutes of walking (lightly or moderately) during every 20 minutes of sedentary activity. If you are not walking for health yet, this article should motivate you!
Until now, you may not have thought of walking as a “break” but I urge you to start thinking about sitting as a harmful force and walking as a break from its detrimental effects.
From my years of studying health, walking and medicine, I am convinced that sitting is the new tobacco. This research shows that we must make it a rule to break up our periods of sitting with short bouts of light or moderate walking. I cannot overemphasize the word “rule.” This is not a suggestion or just a good idea. Taking short walking breaks every 20 minutes during periods of prolonged sitting must be a must.
I urge you to set a timer to beep every 20 minutes and then get up and walk for a few minutes. The scale may not move, but on a genetic/cellular level, you will be providing yourself with profound health benefits and fighting back disease (and even cancer).
This unique research is important for everyone: the young, the old and everyone in-between. If you know anyone who sits too much (and who doesn’t?), make a difference in their life—share this information with them.
Now, step away from the computer and like the slogan says, “You deserve a break today” –a walking break! Get going!
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Latouche C, Jowett JB, Carey AL, Bertovic DA, Owen N, Dunstan DW, Kingwell BA. Effects of breaking up prolonged sitting on skeletal muscle gene expression. J Appl Physiol. 2013 Feb;114(4):453-60.