Stand Up, Don't Sit, for a Healthy Heart

Recent research analyzed how varied activity patterns throughout the day are associated with heart health. So, don't sit, get moving.

Globally, cardiovascular illness, encompassing all disorders of the heart and blood vessels, is the leading cause of death.

It was the cause of one in three fatalities in 2021, or around 17.9 million deaths annually, with coronary heart disease being the leading cause of mortality.

The number of individuals with cardiovascular disease has doubled since 1997 and is expected to continue rising.

In the British Heart Foundation-funded study, which was published in the European Heart Journal, UCL researchers examined data from six studies totaling 15,246 participants from five different nations to determine the relationship between movement patterns during the day and heart health as determined by six standard indicators.

Every participant had their heart health assessed and their activity levels were tracked over a 24-hour day using a wearable device on their thigh.

In comparison to the negative effects of sedentary behavior, the researchers discovered a hierarchy of activities that make up a normal 24-hour day, with time spent engaging in moderate-to-vigorous activity offering the most benefit to heart health, followed by light activity, standing, and sleeping.

To quantify the impact on heart health for each scenario, the team estimated what would happen if an individual substituted one habit for another every day for a week in varying quantities.

As little as five minutes of moderate-to-intense exercise replaced sedentary behavior and had a discernible impact on heart health.

For example, a 30-minute modification resulted in a 0.64 drop in BMI, or 2.4%, for a 54-year-old woman whose typical BMI was 26.5.

Exercise that is moderate to vigorous can also result in a drop of 2.5 cm (2.7%) in waist circumference and 1.33 mmol/mol (3.6%) in glycated hemoglobin4 when 30 minutes of sitting or laying down each day are substituted.

The big takeaway from our research is that while small changes to how you move can have a positive effect on heart health, intensity of movement matters. The most beneficial change we observed was replacing sitting with moderate to vigorous activity – which could be a run, a brisk walk, or stair climbing – basically any activity that raises your heart rate and makes you breathe faster, even for a minute or two.

- Jo Blodgett, first author of the study

The scientists noted that while engaging in intense physical activity was the fastest path to heart health improvement, persons of all abilities may benefit from these activities as well; the longer it takes to see noticeable results, the lower the intensity of the activity.

For example, switching from a sitting desk to a standing desk for a few hours each day is a shift that takes some time to adjust to, but it is also one that can be readily incorporated into a work schedule because it doesn't take much time.

It was also shown that the people who are least active stand to gain the most by switching from sedentary to more active lifestyles.

Long-term research is necessary to have a deeper knowledge of the relationships between cardiovascular outcomes and mobility.

While it should come as no surprise that increasing physical activity is good for heart health, Professor Mark Hamer, a co-senior author of the paper, notes that this study is unique in that it takes into account a variety of activities across the course of a whole day. With this strategy, we may eventually offer tailored advice to encourage people to get more active in sensible ways.

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