Breaking out of a sedentary lifestyle is tough for a lot of people. Office workers have to sit all day because of their jobs, but they do have the option to exercise when they get off from work. However, evidence has shown that sitting all day reverses any health benefits of exercise. Is sitting really the new smoking? Or can we defend ourselves against a routine that promotes inactivity by exercising whenever we get a chance?

Researchers from the University of Leicester have finished a study that examined if exercise can really be a cure-all for the various dangers of sedentary lifestyle, which can include heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Contrary to what recent studies have shown regarding our daily distribution of sitting and exercise, it seems we can do both and stay healthy.

"We demonstrate that in comparison to adults who are physically inactive with high sedentary time, those who are physically active have a more desirable health profile across multiple cardiometabolic markers even when combined with high sedentary time,” said Dr. Thomas Yates, from the Leicester Diabetes Centre and the University of Leicester, in a statement. “In contrast, low sedentary time in the absence of physical activity is associated with higher HDL-cholesterol levels.”

Yates and his colleagues gathered data using England’s 2008 Health Survey. A representative sample of English adults was divided into several categories, including people who met the recommended guidelines for physical activity and a low sedentary lifestyle (busy bees), those who were physically active but had sedentary tendencies (sedentary exercisers), those who did not exercise regularly but did meet standards for a low sedentary lifestyle (light movers), and those who did not meet exercise guidelines and led a sedentary lifestyle (couch potatoes).

There was no doubt that the couch potato group was putting their health at the highest risk by not exercising and sitting all day. No physical activity and more sitting meant more markers for diabetes and heart disease. The findings also showed that people who exercise regularly while spending a larger portion of the day sitting still offset the unhealthy side effects of sitting all day, including a high body mass index and cholesterol levels. Light movers also had higher levels of HDL (good) cholesterol without exercising regularly.

"By suggesting that being physically active may offset some of the deleterious consequences of routinely engaging in high levels of sedentary behavior, this study further emphasizes the importance of physical activity in the promotion and maintenance of health,” Yates added. "However, given the observational design, the relative magnitude of effect of physical activity and sedentary behavior on health needs further examination through experimental or intervention level research."

Physical inactivity is considered one of the lifestyle choices that increase a person’s risk for poor cardiovascular health. Researchers from the University of Queensland have even found that too much sitting and too little exercise can increase the heart disease risk among women over the age of 30 more than smoking and obesity.

"This research is significant because it demonstrates yet again why physical activity and exercise is so important,” said Kishan Bakrania, one of the researchers working on the study. “It shows that people who spend large amounts of time not moving either through work, leisure or lifestyle can counteract some of the negative effects of sedentary behavior by regularly exercising."

Researchers from Indiana University Bloomington conducted a similar study in September 2014. Instead of comparing the amount of time spent sitting and exercising, this research team analyzed how taking a five-minute walk every hour can ward off the consequences of a sedentary lifestyle. Participants who were asked to sit for three hours while standing up for a five-minute walk every hour experienced an uptick in muscle activity and blood flow. So next time you feel like you’ve spent too much time planted on your backside, you might want to just stand up and walk it off.

Source: Bakrania K, Edwardson C, Yates T, et al. Associations of mutually exclusive categories of physical activity and sedentary time with markers of cardiometabolic health in English adults: a cross-sectional analysis of the Health Survey for England. BMC Public Health . 2016.