To exercise more, seniors should sit less

Researchers say a few ways to add more light activity include getting up from the chair, moving during television commercial breaks, and pacing when on the phone. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Getting the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week may be challenging for some older adults, but researchers say that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t work at it.

“Only about one in ten adults aged 40 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom is getting what is considered to be ‘sufficient’ exercise,” says Phillip Sparling, professor emeritus in the School of Applied Physiology at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Stand, don’t sit

For sedentary individuals, a gradual transition to increased activity may be the most practical way to improve health. “For example, adding five to 10 minutes per day of light walking and standing is a good start, building up to 30 minutes per day during the course of a month,” he says.

Long-term sitting has been cited by the World Health Organization as a leading risk factor for death.

“A major point we were trying to make is that older adults should replace sitting with standing and light activity,” Sparling says.  “For the most sedentary persons, benefits can be realized from modest increases in activity levels.”

But, a focus on increasing light activity shouldn’t replace the goal of 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, Sparling says.

Exercise lite

“This is not about a new ‘exercise lite’ program or rolling back consensus standards. Adding more light activity throughout the day does not replace the established exercise goal of 30 minutes per day of brisk walking. It should instead be viewed as complementary, or as an intermediate pathway toward the goal.”

Older adults should be encouraged to reduce sedentary behavior by introducing activity throughout the day. Sedentary time should be broken up by standing or strolling for one or two minutes at least once an hour.


“Advice on how to accumulate time spent in light activity could include getting up from the chair and moving during television commercial breaks, pacing when on the phone, adding gentle five minute walks throughout the day, and walking rather than driving for short trips,” the authors write.

Exercise is associated with reduced risk of hypertension, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, breast cancer, and colon cancer. But older adults may have different health goals than younger persons. For instance, older people may be more concerned about exercise to sustain strength, flexibility, and balance required for independent living.

For the study, published in the British Medical Journal, researchers examined data for 7,000 United States adults between the ages of 20 and 79 to calculate average daily time in physical activity. The data from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey was based on actual accelerometer readings, not self-reporting of the study participants.

Only in the youngest age groups did the level of daily physical activity rise above 30 minutes per day. Perhaps more importantly, the percentage of time spent sedentary during waking hours rose from 55 percent in the group between 20 and 29 years of age to 67 percent in those between 70 and 79.

Researchers from University of Queensland, Monash University, Melbourne University, and University of Western Australia are coauthors of the paper.

Source: Georgia Tech