If you’re one of the millions who work in a 9-to-5 office job, you may have wondered how that desk job affects your health and fitness levels.
In recent years, some health experts have claimed that 'sitting is the new smoking'! Research(1) has certainly confirmed in the past that desk jobs are not great for your physical wellbeing. On average, office workers sit for seven to ten hours per day,and can spend up to 75% of their working hours seated, often with prolonged periods of sitting and no activity at all.
This level of inactivity has been associated with an increased risk of serious health conditions such as diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease, and a sedentary lifestyle has even been associated with a shorter lifespan (2).
Being inactive also slows down your metabolism which can put you at risk of obesity and related health conditions (3). Sitting for long periods of time has also been shown to have an adverse effect on mental health (4).
This is worrying news for the millions of people around the world who work behind a desk. Office work is one of the most common occupations, so escaping the 9 to 5 for something more active isn’t a viable option for most people, so if you’re a full time desk jockey, what can you do to make your lifestyle healthier?
Are you able to offset all this sitting with exercise, and if so, how much exercise do you need to do?
How much exercise do you need to do to offset your desk job?
If you want to know how to stay fit when working 9 to 5, you’ll be pleased to know that scientists have determined exactly how much exercise you need to do, to combat all that sitting on your butt.
In 2020, a meta-analysis of nine previous studies(5), using data obtained from fitness trackers and feedback from 44,370 partipants around the world, suggested that about 30-40 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity should offset ten hours of sitting. If that feels unachievable, don’t despair, as more recent research(6), suggests that only 22 minutes of exercise is enough. This later study, published in October 2023 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, set out to determine exactly how much sedentary time was associated with a higher risk of early death—and how much corresponding physical activity was required to offset that risk.
As part of the study, around 12,000 people from Norway, Sweden, and the U.S. wore fitness trackers for at least four days each week, over a period of at least two years. Comparing the activity data with death registries and medical outcomes, the results showed that participants who exercised for less than 22 minutes a day had a 38% higher risk of death from any cause. Those who undertook 22 minutes of exercise or more each day had better health outcomes and typically had a longer lifespan.
It seems then that the magic number for health and wellness is 22! If you can’t escape your 9 to 5 job, with this information you can at least plan a lifestyle and exercise regime to mitigate the harmful effects.
Instead of taking the car or public transport, walk briskly whenever you can for an easy, free workout
What’s the best form of exercise?
Whilst 22 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise daily is the bare minimum to offset your hours of sitting, increasing physical activity on a daily basis will have the most significant benefits to your health long-term. In terms of the best sort of exercise to do, the research was based on moderate to vigorous exercise which elevates your heart rate; however, any form of bodily movement is better than none. Even if you can just organise a standing desk and spend a few hours each day standing instead of sitting, this is a step in the right direction.
Of course, fitness training is great for building muscular and aerobic strength, so if you can join a gym or attend regular exercise classes this is great; however, it’s not always about undertaking formal exercise regimes. In fact, the research indicated that people with active jobs and lifestyles had even better cardiovascular health than marathon runners. If you are a regular gym user, don't get complacent - it’s still a good idea to increase your general activity levels outside of the gym. Regular short bursts of exercise throughout the day have been shown to have major benefits for overall fitness and health.(7) You can achieve a similar effect by getting up from your desk and having a mini workout every hour or so throughout the day, known as ‘exercise snacking’. Even if it’s just for 30 seconds, it can still do you good and count as part of your daily movement minutes.
Here are a few ideas to bump up your hours of daily movement:
- Get a fitness tracker - set a timer to get up and stretch every hour at work
- Try ‘exercise snacking’ - mini workouts really add up
- Use the stairs - forget the lift, climbing stairs is a another way to get a bite-sized workout
- Get a standing desk and stand for a couple of hours each day
- Walk everywhere - if you can, walk to your gym, fitness class, the office, or the shops! Walk the dog - if you don’t have a dog, see if any neighbours need help walking theirs, or sign up to a dog-borrowing service (yes, they exist!) Walk briskly for best effects, so it raises your heart rate
- Volunteer - local parks and charities are always looking for volunteers to help out with painting, litter picking, and gardening. It’s good fun and good exercise.
- Get busy! Make household chores fun, put on some music and dance through the dusting. Do some gardening and outdoor chores like cleaning windows or washing the car, or help a neighbour do theirs.
- Cycle - it's cheaper than driving or public transport, and gives your body a good workout at the same time
- Sports - If you find exercise boring, consider taking up a physically active sport. Anything that moves your body is good: climbing, walking, skating, football, riding, netball, poledancing, skateboarding, or dancing! Yoga, pilates, or qigong are good options if you have mobility issues.
Volunteering can be great exercise, plus it's a great way to meet people and support your local community
So, getting 22 minutes of exercise a day might possibly extend your life, and hopefully will enrich it in many other positive ways. Even if you regularly use the gym, being moderately active in between sessions is still really important for active recovery. If you currently do zero exercise, set yourself easy, manageable daily goals, then build up - even a minute or two a day will make a difference. If you’re really lacking in motivation, joining a sports club, or arranging to meet a friend or colleague for a walk, can help to motivate you and kick start your movement journey. Consider subscribing to a healthy meal prep service which can free up more time for exercise.
As you get fitter, you’ll find that you want to do more exercise and it won’t be a chore. The research suggests that being sedentary can become a habit which extends into our life outside of work too, so building new habits around exercise is a great foundation for long-term health. People often become inactive when they feel lonely or overweight, so finding ways to exercise outdoors and meet others can help to improve mental healh too.
So get moving - movement is life!
If you enjoyed this article, read these related blogs on our website:
- 16 Easy Exercise and Diet Tips
- Overtraining - Are You Exercising Too Much?
- Are you getting enough sleep?
- Buckley JP, Hedge A, Yates T, et al The sedentary office: an expert statement on the growing case for change towards better health and productivity British Journal of Sports Medicine 2015;49:1357-1362.
- Chau JY, Grunseit A, Midthjell K, Holmen J, Holmen TL, Bauman AE, Van der Ploeg HP. Sedentary behaviour and risk of mortality from all-causes and cardiometabolic diseases in adults: evidence from the HUNT3 population cohort. Br J Sports Med. 2015 Jun;49(11):737-42. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2012-091974. Epub 2013 May 10. PMID: 23666019.
- Gómez-Cabello A, Pedrero-Chamizo R, Olivares PR, Hernández-Perera R, Rodríguez-Marroyo JA, Mata E, Aznar S, Villa JG, Espino-Torón L, Gusi N, González-Gross M, Casajús JA, Ara I, Vicente-Rodríguez G; EXERNET Study Group. Sitting time increases the overweight and obesity risk independently of walking time in elderly people from Spain. Maturitas. 2012 Dec;73(4):337-43. doi: 10.1016/j.maturitas.2012.09.001. Epub 2012 Sep 26. PMID: 23021800.
- Pears M, Kola-Palmer S, De Azevedo LB. The impact of sitting time and physical activity on mental health during COVID-19 lockdown. Sport Sci Health. 2022;18(1):179-191. doi: 10.1007/s11332-021-00791-2. Epub 2021 Jun 10. PMID: 34127931; PMCID: PMC8190724.
- Ekelund U, Tarp J, Fagerland MW, et al Joint associations of accelerometer-measured physical activity and sedentary time with all-cause mortality: a harmonised meta-analysis in more than 44 000 middle-aged and older individuals British Journal of Sports Medicine 2020;54:1499-1506.
- Sagelv EH, Hopstock LA, Morseth B, et al. Device-measured physical activity, sedentary time, and risk of all-cause mortality: an individual participant data analysis of four prospective cohort studies. Br J Sports Med. 2023;57(22):1457-1463. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2022-106568
- Stamatakis, E., Ahmadi, M.N., Gill, J.M.R. et al. Association of wearable device-measured vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity with mortality. Nat Med 28, 2521–2529 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-022-02100-x