Health & Wellness

Long, slow walks may beat shorter, higher intensity runs

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Forget about busting your buns on the treadmill. A small new study suggests that you’ll be healthier if you spend your time taking long, slow walks – and standing instead of sitting whenever possible.

For those who detest working up a sweat at the gym this might sound too good to be true. But researchers have found that it may be more important to reduce your hours sitting than it is to exercise vigorously, according to the study published in PLOS ONE.

In fact, when volunteers spent two hours standing and four hours walking each day they had healthier insulin levels and lower triglycerides than when they spent an hour a day at the gym cycling for all they were worth, Norwegian researchers found. And that was true even though the volunteers burned nearly the same amount of calories whether they were cycling or slow walking: The main difference was in the number of hours spent sitting.

“Our experimental study on minimal activity showed that reducing sitting time causes improvement in health risk markers,” says study co-author Hans Savelberg, an associate professor at Maastricht University.

Dr. Karol Watson, an expert unaffiliated with the new study, agrees.

“Man was meant to walk – and to walk a lot,” says Watson, an associate professor of cardiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-director of the UCLA Center for Cholesterol and Lipid Management. “That doesn’t mean marathons, but rather to move around a lot.”

For the new study, Savelberg and his colleagues asked 18 normal weight college students to consecutively spend several days in one of three regimes: sitting for 14 hours a day with no exercise; sitting for 13 hours a day with one hour spent cycling vigorously while monitored by a researcher; and sitting 8 hours a day, walking for four hours, and standing for two hours."

The students were all asked to wear monitors that kept track of their movements so researchers knew they were following instructions.

After each phase of the experiment, the researchers measured study volunteers’ insulin sensitivity and blood lipid levels. Insulin sensitivity is important because it is a predictor of diabetes risk, while lipid levels give doctors a window on heart disease risk.

Not surprisingly, when the volunteers sat all day without any exercise, they burned fewer calories. The four hours of leisurely walking burned about the same number of calories as pedal-to-the-metal cycling for an hour.

Couch potato behavior led to the worst insulin, cholesterol and triglyceride measurements. But the intriguing finding was that the measurements were far better when the students spent six hours a day walking and standing than they were when volunteers vigorously exercised an hour a day. Triglycerides, for example, barely improved with vigorous exercise, but were 22 percent better when volunteers spent only 8 hours a day sitting.

The new findings are the latest in a raft of research suggesting that sitting is bad for us. The first hints that couch-potato behavior might be unhealthy in and of itself came in a 2010 study published in Circulation. That study found that even among those who exercised hard and regularly, the risk of death from heart disease rose with the number of hours spent sitting in front of the TV. A second study published the same year in the Journal of Epidemiology found an increased risk of mortality that correlated with the number of hours spent sitting. Once again, exercise didn’t banish the increased risk of sedentary behavior.

Studies since then have linked sitting time to increased risks of diabetes, high cholesterol and high triglyceride levels.

The new study may go a long way to explaining the results of another recent report that found that baby boomers are less healthy than their parents at the same age. The older generation spent much more time walking to work and for errands, Watson says, adding that she doesn’t want folks to take this as a sign that they should give up the gym.

“That one hour of Zumba is great if it’s all you can get,” she says. “But you also want to walk everywhere you can.”

Another option, one that TODAY anchor and certified personal trainer Jenna Wolfe recommends to her clients, is to make the most of your down time. “Waiting for a subway? Do some calf raises. Waiting in line for something? Balance on one leg and then switch. Sitting at your desk? Lift your feet off the floor to engage your core,” Wolfe says.  

She encourages those she trains to try not to sit for more than one hour at a time without getting up to walk around. “My suggestion? Once an hour, drop 25 paper clips on the floor and squat down to pick each one up individually,” Wolfe says. For his part, Savelberg says that he hopes the new findings will kick start couch potatoes into action – or at least standing more and sitting less. 

He doesn’t expect time-crunched people to walk for four hours every day. Simple changes in lifestyle may do the trick, Savelberg says, adding “you could take your bike instead of your car, use the stairs and not the elevator, walk to your colleague’s office instead of sending her/him an email.”

NBCNews.com health editor Melissa Dahl contributed to this report.

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