Hacks to Sit Less and Save Your Life

Sitting is the new smoking. Even if you exercise each day, studies show that sitting for long periods will increase your risks of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and early death.

Many of us make our living sitting at a desk or in front of a computer. At school, you sit to listen to lectures or work in study groups. At home, you watch a video, read, or play games while seated for long periods.

How can you break up long periods of sitting and reduce the time you spend sitting all day? Learn how to work activity into your workday or your at-home time?


Get Up for Lunch and Coffee Breaks

Sitting Stressed at Desk
Image Source/Getty Images

Eating lunch at your desk and skipping work breaks could kill you. They add to the sitting time that increases your health risks.

Research suggests that sitting may promote certain health problems. You need to move around for two to five minutes at least every hour to boost wellness.

To sit less at work, make yourself step away from the desk and take active breaks during the workday.

  • Don't make it convenient: That Keurig machine on your desk makes it too easy to spend the day sitting. Get up to grab a coffee, water or soft drink. Make a habit of taking a stroll to a break room, water cooler, coffee stand or cafeteria.
  • Use a smaller cup: You'll need to go for a refill more often with a smaller water bottle or coffee cup. That will force you to get up.
  • Eat lunch and take breaks with a co-worker: Team up and you will have the social pressure to force both of you to get up and get away from the desk.
  • Drink more water: Staying hydrated is good for your body, and many people don't drink enough water. Not only will you have to get up more often to refill your glass or water bottle, you will likely have to take more restroom breaks.
  • Move while you microwave: If you heat your meal or snack, spend that time moving around. You can go for a brisk stroll down the hall and back, meander around the room, or even spend that minute or two dancing.
  • Active food prep: Instead of bringing a ready-to-eat sandwich or snack, make yourself take a minute or two to assemble it while you are standing at a counter or table. Become a food photographer and spend an extra minute making it Instagram-worthy and admiring it from all angles.

Walk On Your Breaks and at Lunch

Take a 15-Minute Walk on Your Break: Turn break times into active times to not only just get up and move, but to get moderately-intense physical activity. Do this twice a day and you will achieve the minimum daily physical activity recommendation.

Take a Lunchtime Walk: Just getting up is good, but you can use your lunchtime for a 30-minute walk as recommended to reach daily physical activity goals.


Short Activity Break Ideas

Sitting at Desk Wearing Sneakers
Wear Sneakers at the Office to be More Active. Jamie Grill/Tetra images/Getty Images

Get up and move for one to five minutes every half hour to break up sitting time and reduce your health risks of sitting.

Dress for Activity

  • Shoes: If you find yourself making an excuse that your heels or dress shoes make walking or standing painful, it's time to switch to comfort shoes or bring along a pair of sneakers to slip into.
  • Clothes: If you're afraid to move because your skirt or pants are too tight, loosen up so you can move freely. Your wardrobe could literally be killing you.

Add Activity to Your Routine

  • Don't text or call co-workers who are just a short walk away. Get up and pay a visit instead.
  • Stand up every time you read or write a text or make calls.
  • Stand up every time you press send for an outgoing email. How about a flourish—toss a paper airplane and then go retrieve it?
  • Take walking meetings instead of sitting.
  • Make stretch breaks part of long meetings or presentations.
  • Meet colleagues at their office/cubicle instead of your own, or suggest a meeting spot at the coffee shop so you both have to get up and walk there.
  • Not paperless yet? Stand up whenever you need to print, scan or copy.
  • Don't use the closest restroom, take a longer stroll to one farther away.

Time to Move

If you use an app or activity monitor to signal you to move, what can you do once you get that alert?

  • March in place: this gets your major leg and hip muscles moving and the blood flowing.
  • Stand and stretch: Work out the kinks. Use these yoga stretches for desk workers.
  • Dance: Turn on a tune or sing it in your head while you dance to the beat. It can brighten your mood as well as get you moving.
  • Take a stroll to top off your water bottle, coffee or tea.

Inactivity Alerts

Close-up of Fitbit on man's wrist
Mark Cacovic/Moment Mobile/Getty Images

Do you know how long you have actually been sitting? It's easy to get caught up in work or watching videos and not realize you've been sitting for over an hour.

As more is known about the health risks of sitting still, inactivity alerts are being built into activity monitors, smart watches, and apps. A warning message, vibrating alarm, or audible beep is likely to get your attention and prompt you to actually get up and move.

How often should you break up a period of sitting and how long do you need to move before sitting down again?

  • Studies found that walking for two minutes after every 20 minutes of sitting improved glucose control and the body's insulin response after a meal and improved resting blood pressure. Another found that five minutes of walking each hour improved blood flow in the legs. 
  • Polar activity monitors give inactivity alerts if you have been seated or inactive for 45 minutes to an hour. The Jawbone UP can give a vibrating inactivity alert for whatever period of time you choose. Newer models of Fitbit have vibrating alarms when you've been inactive during the hour and haven't achieved 250 steps.
  • Devices and apps vary as to whether any movement counts as an active break or you have to stay active for one or more minutes.
  • When you get an inactivity alert, get up and move for two to five minutes to break up the sitting time.

Rewards and Punishments

Activity monitors can motivate you by tracking how many hours of the day you were active for at least 250 steps or several minutes and give you trophies or badges for being active more hours of the day. Or they can shame you with how many hours you got an inactivity alert (Polar).


Use a Treadmill Desk

LifeSpan TR 1200-DT Treadmill Desk
LifeSpan TR 1200-DT Treadmill Desk. Courtesy of Pricegrabber

Don't sit while you work, put your laptop on a treadmill desk and walk slowly while you work. If you use a tablet, you probably just prop it on the console of most treadmills without modification.

Treadmill manufacturers are producing treadmills without standard consoles, so you can use them with a standing desk. They are also making all-in-one treadmill desks.

If you have a treadmill, you can build your own treadmill desk or buy a kit that will fit over most treadmills.

The key to using a treadmill desk while still working productively is to walk slowly, at one mile per hour or less. This light activity will reduce your health risks of sitting still. It will also burn more calories throughout the day. Studies have shown that over the course of a year, using a treadmill desk may help you lose a few pounds.

You can also use a treadmill while watching video or gaming. Slow walking beats sitting for recreational activities as well as work.


Sit Less Using a Desk Cycle

DeskCycle. Wendy Bumgardner © 2013

If you don't have space or money for a treadmill desk, a cycling desk, under-desk cycle ore elliptical pedal machine is a great option to keep your muscles active as you work at a desk.

As with a treadmill, you may be able to modify your existing stationary bike or bike trainer to use a tablet or a laptop on an over-bike shelf while slowly cycling. FitDesk makes a desk attachment to fit most stationary bikes.

I've tried two different options. The silent DeskCycle is inexpensive and fits under a standard desk. You can choose the tension to pedal as you work. I find it no distraction at all while working at a computer or watching a video at home in the evening.

I've also tried the FitDesk cycle desk. That requires more space and the seat can become uncomfortable.

Cycling and pedaling use the major muscle groups in your legs, and logically they are light activity and not sitting still.

Seated Pedaling Study

A study used an under-desk elliptical pedal device for sedentary, overweight office workers and compared them to a control group in the same company. Lead researcher Lucas J. Carr, Ph.D. of the University of Iowa said, "We did find that those who pedaled more were more likely to realize improvements in weight, total fat mass, resting heart rate, and body fat percentage."

The workers pedaled an average of 50 minutes during the workday, usually in five-minute bouts. The device recorded that most of the pedaling were at a light intensity, similar to walking at an easy pace. They burned an average of 107 calories, which is the equivalent of walking over a mile or over two kilometers.

They had no problems with muscle pain or reduction in work productivity. They had fewer sick days. At the end of the 16-week study, most of the group opted to keep the pedal device as they enjoyed using it.

"Because we found more pedaling correlated with improvements in several cardiometabolic biomarkers, we believe this approach holds potential for negating the negative health effects of sitting in an individual uses the device regularly. Most of our participants really enjoyed the device so there is little reason to suspect they are not still using it today," said Carr.

The limited scope of the study makes it hard to generalize the results. For instance, there were only 60 participants in the study and only half of those used the under-desk elliptical pedal device. All participants were employees of the same company, all were overweight, most were women, and almost all were middle-aged and white. It is possible that there were other factors that contributed to the health benefits reported by study authors.

However, it is still reasonable to consider the under-desk device as a possible alternative to walking if your office space makes it hard to move away from your desk to get some extra steps in each hour. But it is important to remember that just owning the device or using it occasionally does not guarantee health benefits.


Sit Less With a Standing Desk

Using a Standing Desk
Using a Standing Desk. Hero Images/Getty

How can you sit less when you work at a desk? Use a standing desk for some or all of the workday.

You can set up a fixed-height standing desk that will be at the correct height for good ergonomics. You may want to make part of your workstation a standing desk while also having a sit-down desk, and alternating between them.

If you or your employer want to make the investment, there are many adjustable desks that you can raise or lower throughout the day. Sit when you want, stand when you want.

While there are benefits for using a standing desk, the research doesn't yet say whether it is enough to just stand still rather than sit still. It may take more activity to reduce the health risks of sitting still.

If you don't eliminate your sit-down desk, you can still form habits to stand up during the workday.

  • Stand up during each phone call.
  • Stand up to text or read texts on your mobile phone.
  • Stand up when a co-worker visits your office or cubicle.

Active Sitting

Man Using an Exercise Ball as a Desk Chair
Using an Exercise Ball as a Desk Chair. Darren Robb/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Swap out your desk chair for an unstable surface and you may engage more of your core muscles and lower body muscles while sitting. Many office workers give this a try.

The research into the health risks of sitting has yet to verify whether sitting on an unstable surface is better. Most of the studies just don't get down to that fine of a detail as to what people are using as a chair.

Unstable Sitting Options

  • Exercise Ball: This is the classic unstable seat. It has advantages in that you are unlikely to fall asleep at your desk as you would tumble off it. You can also be inspired to do some crunches as a short sitting break. The drawbacks are that it may look less professional in some settings and be frowned upon by superiors.
  • Fit Disc: Use an unstable seat cushion to give you some of the benefits of the exercise ball without attracting attention.
  • Wobble Stool: An unstable stool can also engage more muscles while you sit.
  • Swopper: This unstable stool has a large spring that is adjustable for the amount of wobble and the height of the seat. The seat is convex like sitting on an exercise ball, to encourage good posture.
  • Rocking Chair: We may forget that granny's rocker was the original unstable sitting surface, allowing you to engage your core muscles and lower body by rocking.

Sitting on an unstable surface may not be much better than plain old sitting, it is one suggestion to increase your non-exercise calorie burn throughout the day.


Active Commuting

Businesswoman walking to work
Liam Norris/Cultura/Getty Images

Don't overlook the time you spend commuting as a stretch where you sit too long and increase your health risks. If you spend more than 30 minutes sitting during your commute, look for ways to break up that sitting time or to ensure you get two to five minutes of walking before and after.

Before Your Commute

  • Circle your house or apartment, tidy up, take out the trash and recycling, put laundry in the hamper, make sure you have everything you need for the day.
  • Car commuters: Circle the block on foot before you get in your car. Say hello to the neighbors.
  • Bus/rail commuters: If you don't get enough of a walk getting to the bus stop or station, think about boarding at the next stop down the line to get more of a walk.

During Your Commute

  • Stand up for part of your commute on the rail. Give your seat to an elder, veteran or pregnant woman.
  • If you stop for coffee or breakfast, park and get out of the car rather than going through a drive-thru.
  • Get off the bus or rail a stop early and get a little longer walk to your destination.
  • Park farther from your destination so you get a longer walk to work.

After Your Commute to Work

  • Plan to arrive early and ensure you have at least a five-minute walk before you settle in at your workstation.
  • Stroll the halls, say hi to co-workers.
  • Enjoy a pre-work walking workout with a co-worker. Schedule it three or more days per week.

Commuting Home

  • Plan stops on the way home to pick up groceries and run errands. Get out of the car and off the bus or train.
  • Don't settle in as soon as you get home, take a walk at least around the block. It's a great time to take a walk to clear your brain of job stress and ease into a pleasant evening.

Walk or Bike to Work

Replace the sit-down commute completely with an active commute on foot or on the bike.

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5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Bailey DP, Locke CD. "Breaking up prolonged sitting with light-intensity walking improves postprandial glycemia, but breaking up sitting with standing does not." J Sci Med Sport. 2014 Mar 20. pii: S1440-2440(14)00051-6. doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2014.03.008.

  3. Thosar SS, Bielko SL, Mather KJ, Johnston JD, Wallace JP. "Effect of prolonged sitting and breaks in sitting time on endothelial function." Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2014 Aug 18. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000000479

  4. Koepp GA, Manohar CU, McCrady-Spitzer SK, Ben-Ner A, Hamann DJ, Runge CF, Levine JA. "Treadmill desks: A 1-year prospective trial." Obesity (Silver Spring) 2013 Apr;21(4):705-11. doi:10.1002/oby.20121.

  5. Carr L, Leonhard C, Tucker S, Fethke N, Benzo R, Gerr F. "Total worker health intervention increases activity of sedentary workers."Preventive Medicine. August 07, 2015. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2015.06.022.

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