A new international study reveals that any type of movement, even while sleeping, is better for cardiovascular health than prolonged sitting. The findings advocate simple, accessible changes that can be integrated into daily life.
Published Friday in the European Heart Journal, the research was led by the Prospective Physical Activity, Sitting, and Sleep (ProPASS) consortium across five countries. It adds to growing evidence that sedentary behavior has adverse effects on health.
Focus of the Largest Study to Date
With cardiovascular disease killing nearly 20.5 million people globally in 2021, the study has significant public health implications. The researchers analyzed baseline data from over 15,000 participants aged 21 to 75 years in the United States, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Jamaica, and South Africa.
This groundbreaking study deployed wearable devices to differentiate between specific physical behaviors across a 24-hour spectrum. It examined their relative impacts on six cardiovascular risk factors – body mass index, cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, waist size, and resting heart rate.
Key Insights on Physical Activity and Heart Health
The results clearly showed that replacing sitting with any movement is beneficial, particularly more intense activity. Moderate to vigorous physical activity had the strongest positive associations with the risk factors.
Even replacing short sedentary periods with standing provided benefits. This highlights the role of reducing sitting time in those with largely deskbound lifestyles. Sleeping was also preferable for health over being sedentary awake.
“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,” said lead author Dr. Jo Blodgett of University College London.
“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.”
Accessible Lifestyle Changes
The researchers advocate for small, sustainable modifications that can be integrated into regular routines without added time commitments.
“Though it may come as no surprise that becoming more active is beneficial for heart health, what’s new in this study is considering a range of behaviors across the whole 24-hour day,” said joint senior author Professor Mark Hamer from UCL.
“This approach will allow us to ultimately provide personalized recommendations to get people more active in ways that are appropriate for them.”
Examples include walking while taking phone calls, using a standing desk at work, or taking active breaks every hour. Those with the most sedentary routines showed the greatest health improvements from replacing sitting with movement.
Novel Aspects of the Study Design
Unlike previous studies focused only on exercise, this study took a holistic approach by measuring all behaviors over 24 hours. The use of wearable trackers provided detailed data on variations in activity and posture.
“A key novelty of the ProPASS consortium is the use of wearable devices that better differentiate between types of physical activity and posture, allowing us to estimate the health effects of even subtle variations with greater precision,” said joint senior author Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis.
This allowed the researchers to analyze specific durations and intensities of movement, from sleep to vigorous exercise. It advances understanding of dose-response relationships between physical behaviors and cardiovascular risk factors.
“Replacing sedentary behavior with any intensity of movement is beneficial, and higher intensity has a greater impact,” said Dr. Blodgett. “But the key is developing sustainable habits.”
Implications for Public Health Policy
The study provides robust evidence to guide public health policy and clinical recommendations. Given the ubiquity of cardiovascular disease globally, the findings have broad relevance.
“We already know that exercise can have real benefits for your cardiovascular health and this encouraging research shows that small adjustments to your daily routine could lower your chances of having a heart attack or stroke,” said James Leiper of the British Heart Foundation.
The researchers suggest their methodology could potentially be used to provide personalized activity targets based on an individual’s current lifestyle and risk factors.
Additional Analysis: Sedentary Lifestyles and Impact on Developing Nations
The study has particular implications for developing countries, where cardiovascular disease is rising exponentially due to increasingly sedentary lifestyles.
Urbanization has drastically reduced physical activity levels, with deskbound jobs replacing traditional agriculture and manufacturing. Automation of household chores has also played a role.
Public health experts suggest modifying city infrastructure and work policies to promote active transportation and breaks. Mass media campaigns can also raise awareness of simple lifestyle changes to increase movement.
As developing nations continue to urbanize, implementing such upstream approaches will be critical to curbing the impending epidemic of cardiovascular disease.
The ProPASS findings provide an evidence base to guide policy makers in building activity into everyday life in fast-changing environments. This includes school, workplace, and city planning that encourages movement.
Final Thoughts and Future Directions
This large, international study highlights the cardiovascular benefits of any and all movement compared to prolonged sedentary time. Replacing sitting with standing, light activity, or sleep can significantly impact health.
The findings support accessible, sustainable modifications to increase daily activity levels, particularly in sedentary populations. They also demonstrate the value of wearables in differentiating between postures and behaviors.
Future research can explore how personalized movement recommendations can be tailored based on individual risk profiles and lifestyles. As technology improves, wearable devices will enable increasingly nuanced insights into dose-response relationships.
This groundbreaking study paves the way for such next steps in using research to guide lifestyle and policy changes. Given the immensity of cardiovascular disease burden worldwide, the public health implications are far-reaching.