The benefits of long, low-intensity exercise

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Can an intense, hour-long workout compensate for sitting on your rear all day? A small new study suggests it might not – that you’d be better off walking more and standing up throughout the day, rather than cramming in a vigorous workout.

Extended periods of low intensity exercise, such as walking or standing, improved insulin and lipid levels more effectively than an hour of intense exercise, according to the research published in the February issue of PLOS One. The finding held only when the study volunteers burned the same amount of calories.

In addition to increasing physical activity, “a minimal daily amount of non-sitting time should be promoted,” concluded the Dutch researchers.

Evidence is growing that sedentary time is a health risk factor on its own, independent of how much time is spent in the gym. In other words, sitting too much isn’t the same as exercising too little, a concept that has spawned the “standing desk” movement.

In the study of 18 students at a Dutch university, the researchers split the volunteers into three groups. The first group sat for 14 hours a day without exercising. The second group sat for 13 hours a day and worked out vigorously for one hour. The third group substituted six hours of sitting with four hours of walking and two of standing.

The researchers found that cholesterol and lipid levels improved slightly when participants exercised vigorously. But they improved even more when participants were active for longer periods at low intensity.

“The human body not only adapts to exercise initiated stresses, but as our results underline, it also reacts to inactivity, that is increasingly becoming the dominant lifestyle in westernized societies,” they wrote.

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