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For Your Health – At the Heart of It, Even a Little Physical Activity Has Benefits

Washington University School of Medicine

For Your Health Graphic


Dr. Colditz
Dr. Graham A. Colditz

It’s likely not the first heart-themed celebration that comes to mind in February – that of course goes to Valentine’s Day – but American Heart Month certainly deserves just as much attention as its more popular counterpart.

While we’ve made a lot of progress in the treatment and prevention of heart disease, it remains the number one killer in the U.S., and American Heart Month works to raise awareness of both its continued importance and the steps we can all take to look after our heart health.

Being physically active as well as cutting back on the amount of time we spend being sedentary, such as sitting, are key ways to help lower the risk of heart disease as well as other conditions.

“High levels of sedentary behavior have been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and even mortality,” says Elizabeth Salerno, PhD, a behavioral scientist at Washington University School of Medicine who specializes in physical activity research.

A new study that’s made recent headlines suggests that some fairly practical approaches to breaking up longer periods of sitting could have benefits when it comes to certain heart disease risk factors.

The study, by researchers out of Columbia University, found that short, light-intensity walking breaks for every 30 to 60 minutes of sitting could help lower measures of blood glucose and blood pressure. Five minutes of walking every 30 minutes had a significant impact on glucose levels, and walking breaks as short as one minute for every 60 minutes of sitting could lower systolic blood pressure.

Though this study was small, with only 11 participants all age 45 or over, and so may not be generalized to the broader public, Salerno says that, “What is exciting about these findings is that there may be cardiometabolic benefits to many different types of sedentary breaks. Just one minute can make a difference!”

These findings also contribute to a much larger body of evidence showing that there can be real health and well-being benefits from simply being a little more physically active throughout our days – whether it’s very short periods of light activity, longer sessions of moderate activity or, really, any combination that just gets us moving more.

“This is the foundation of a physically active lifestyle,” says Salerno. “Little bits of movement, no matter how small, can be important for health.”

Some simple strategies can help break up longer periods of sitting, whether we’re at home, work or school. Salerno suggests trying these “activity snacks”:

  • Drink more water during the day to prompt walks to the restroom.
  • Set movement reminders on phones or activity trackers.
  • Do simple stretches in place, which break up sedentary time, but also support better posture, improve blood flow and flexibility.
  • Go on short walking meet-ups, for work or fun, which can be a great way to replace sedentary time with a bit of physical activity – a double win.

Of course, work and personal schedules can really vary from person to person. What’s important is finding which approaches work best at helping you fit in these kinds of “activity snacks” and then building from there.

Working toward the recommended total amounts of physical activity is still an important goal.  Getting around 150 minutes or more of activities, like walking or cycling, each week likely leads to the most health and wellness benefits. But it’s becoming clearer and clearer that you can get to that amount by stringing together small bits of activity – and that any amount we can move our bodies during the day is worth doing.

“Really, every minute of activity can be beneficial,” says Salerno.

And that’s really the heart of the matter.


Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention and the creator of the free prevention tool