Sedentary lifestyles have become more prevalent than ever in the United States, in part because of increasing use of computers and other technology. Sitting for extended periods can increase the risk of a number of conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Though there are plenty of ways to avoid a sedentary lifestyle, researchers have figured out a way to prevent it with something that nearly two-thirds of all Americans have in their pockets right now — a smartphone.

Drs. Darla E. Kendzor, of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, and Kerem Shuval, of the American Cancer Society, set out to determine whether periodical smartphone interventions could influence people who are sedentary into being more active. They recruited 215 participants for their study, and split them into two groups — one that received smartphone intervention messages and one that didn’t.

Once split into their groups, each participant was given a one-page printout that listed the importance of limiting sedentary time and increasing overall activity. They were also given smartphones and accelerometers, similar to those found in fitness trackers, to measure how often they moved over the course of the day.

For seven days, participants were asked to use their smartphones to complete a daily assessment. It asked how many hours they spent sitting over the course of the prior day, and was supposed to be done within a half-hour of their reported waking time. Once it was submitted, only those in the intervention group received a message saying, “Remember to STAND UP, SIT LESS, and MOVE MORE today!”

If someone reported sitting for over two hours, a follow-up message would appear: “Medical research has shown that long periods of uninterrupted sitting increase the likelihood of several health problems, including obesity and type 2 diabetes. Make an effort to Stand Up more, Sit Less, and Move About more. This can be achieved by taking frequent standing and walking breaks (at least one break for every half-hour of sitting), standing up when talking on the phone at work or home, checking emails, and then replacing blocks of sitting time with standing time, such as doing household chores while watching TV.”

In addition to the message following the daily assessment, the intervention group also received four random messages over the course of each day, all of which asked what the participant was doing right before they received the text. If one of these participants reported sitting, they’d receive a similar message to the post-assessment follow-up message encouraging them to stand up “now” and move around for five minutes.

Results showed participants in the intervention group not only spent far less time than the control group being sedentary, but also about 25 more minutes each day engaging in light-intensity physical activity. This is good because the Department of Health and Human Services suggests adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week. While these participants might not have been as intensely active, any kind of physical activity is better than none. This means activities as simple as washing dishes, mowing the lawn, or going for a walk around the block will confer some sort of benefit.

"Overall, simple smartphone prompts appear to be a promising strategy for reducing sedentary behavior and increasing activity,” the authors wrote, “though adequately-powered and well-designed studies will be needed to confirm these preliminary findings."

Source: Kendzor D, et al. Impact of a Mobile Phone Intervention to Reduce Sedentary Behavior in a Community Sample of Adults: A Quasi-Experimental Evaluation. Journal of Medical Internet Research. 2016.