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Combat Lockdown Inactivity With 5 Minutes of Movement Per Hour

A woman walks around her brightly lit living room while talking on the phone.
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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that people spent 25 fewer minutes doing light activity each day during COVID-19 lockdowns.
  • The study focused on people with progressive muscle diseases, who are often underrepresented in research, but may have implications for adults of all abilities.
  • You may be able to combat inactivity during lockdown by squeezing in 5 minutes of movement each hour.


The pandemic has forced many of us into a more sedentary lifestyle than ever. Opportunities when we used to naturally squeeze in some physical activity, such as commuting to work, browsing our favorite stores, or walking from meeting to meeting at the office, went out the window when lockdowns began. 

But here’s some good news: You can combat this inactivity relatively easily, according to new research. A study published this month in BMJ Neurology tracked how lockdowns impacted people’s physical activity and found that taking a 5 minute break for light activity every hour could make up for the loss in movement during the pandemic.

The study is part of ongoing research focused on people with progressive muscle diseases, including wheelchair users, which can provide insight into a community often excluded from scientific research. The findings may also have relevance to adults of all abilities. Here’s why.

Findings on Lockdown Inactivity

For this study, researchers from King’s College London looked at the physical activity levels of 85 adults with progressive muscle diseases, such as muscular dystrophy, both before and during lockdown.

The physical abilities of people in the group ranged from assisted mobility to highly independent. The sample included 41 wheelchair users, who tend to be underrepresented in studies, the authors note.

The researchers outfitted each participant with an accelerometer, a device that measures the intensity of physical activity. It also tracked the frequency and duration of vigorous, moderate, and light activity, as well as inactivity. 

Participants wore the device continuously for a week between April and September 2019, and again about nine months later, during the U.K.’s first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. 

The results showed little to no change in participants’ moderate and vigorous physical activity, which was already low for most participants before lockdown. However, there was a substantial change in their light activity and sedentary time. 

On average, participants spent an additional 55 minutes per day inactive during lockdown. Their light activity time dropped by an average of 25 minutes per day, and the frequency of their hourly movement fell by about 11 percent. Most of the decline of light movement occurred as a result of restrictions on leisure activities and a lack of going out to socialize and work.

Alexandra Sowa, MD

COVID has taken away our walk to the subway stations and going into a shop and ambling along. It has taken away being in an office setting and going to a water cooler, or walking to the end of the office to go to the bathroom.

— Alexandra Sowa, MD

“COVID has taken away our walk to the subway stations and going into a shop and ambling along. It has taken away being in an office setting and going to a water cooler, or walking to the end of the office to go to the bathroom,” says Alexandra Sowa, MD, an internal medicine physician and founder of SoWell Health. “We’re doing everything in close quarters and our small movements have been drastically decreased.”

Since adults of all abilities have faced similar circumstances during lockdown, the authors recommend that everyone increase their movement by about 5 minutes per hour, and try to get at least 30 minutes of light activity per day, to make up for the drop in physical activity. 

“The recommendation to get up and move to try to replace some of this activity is certainly a very sound one,” says Barbara Giesser, MD, neurologist and multiple sclerosis specialist at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. She has conducted research on exercise as a therapeutic modality. 

“We’re sitting at home and we’re all glued to our screens, so we want to try to counteract that,” she adds.

Importance of Light Activity

When we think of being active for health, we tend to picture exercise-focused activities, such as jogging, strength training with weights, swimming, or another type of workout.

There’s no doubt that traditional exercise is important. But one strength of this study is its focus on light activities that we often don’t notice we’re doing, and thus don’t realize when we do them less often.

Barbara Giesser, MD

One of the consequences of the pandemic has been that everybody has been less active, and we may not even be aware of this activity because it’s impacted everyday things like going to the store or seeing a friend.

— Barbara Giesser, MD

“One of the consequences of the pandemic has been that everybody has been less active, and we may not even be aware of this activity because it’s impacted everyday things like going to the store or seeing a friend,” says Dr. Giesser.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that “replacing sedentary time with physical activity of any intensity (including light intensity) provides health benefits” for adults, such as:

  • lower risk of mortality
  • lower risk of heart disease
  • lower risk of cancer
  • lower risk of falls
  • improved sleep
  • better cognitive health
  • reduced symptoms of mental illness
  • reduced risk of type 2 diabetes

“While people think activity means exercise in a formal, high-intensity fashion, it’s a lot of the small movements and low-energy activities that have the biggest impact on overall health. They’re the most consistent and most easily achievable,” says Dr. Sowa. “Light activity is just what humans were made to do.”

How to Do More Light Activity

The time we’re spending sedentary during the pandemic could have a long-term detrimental impact on our health. However, you may be able to counteract these health effects by moving your body for 5 minutes each hour, on top of doing an extra 30 minutes of light activity per day, according to the latest study.

You may not even need to change what you’re already doing by much to incorporate this movement. For example, you could take a conference call while walking around your home, decide to climb the stairs instead of using an elevator or stretch your body while watching TV.

“It depends on your mobility level,” says Dr. Giesser. “If you’re ambulatory, the easy thing is to get up and walk around the room for 5 minutes. But if you can’t get it by walking, there are chair exercises, too. Anything that gets large muscle groups to move will help."

Since light activity generally consists of low-energy movements that we need for practical purposes anyway (such as running errands), they’re generally not difficult to incorporate into the day. The hardest part is actually taking those movement breaks every hour, says Dr. Sowa.

“While you might think that you already do 5 minutes of movement every hour, I’d ask how long you sat at your screen without getting up,” she says. “Set a timer on your phone once an hour to get up and do something. While it sounds like nothing, we aren’t moving, and this lack of movement will prove to be a problem. People shouldn’t brush this off.”

What This Means For You

The increased time we’re spending sedentary during COVID-19 lockdowns may have a negative impact on our health down the road. The good news is that we may be able to combat this inactivity by adding just 5 minutes of movement to every hour of the day, and an extra 30 minutes of light activity daily, according to new research.

That might mean taking a conference call while walking around your home, climbing the stairs instead of using the elevator in your apartment building, stretching while watching TV, or doing seated exercises in a chair. Experts recommend setting a timer on your phone to help remind you to move your body frequently.

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Article Sources
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  1. Roberts-Lewis SF, Ashworth M, White CM, et al. COVID-19 lockdown impact on the physical activity of adults with progressive muscle diseases. BMJ Neurology Open 2021;3:e000140. Published March 18, 2021. doi: 10.1136/bmjno-2021-000140

  2. World Health Organization. Physical Activity. Published November 26, 2020.