'Smaller steps is a good way to go:' StatsCan finds benefit from shift away from sitting time

Small steps could literally add up to better health for some, according to a new report from Statistics Canada on the sedentary behaviour of adults.

The health report, released on Wednesday, says even moderate activity can be as beneficial for an older or obese person as more intense exercise is for others. 

“Sometimes just starting with smaller steps is a good way to go,” said Rachel Colley, a senior research analysis at the agency.

Specifically, Colley found those aged 50 to 79 and those who are overweight or obese benefited from shifting 30 minutes of time from sedentary behaviour to light physical activity, such as light walking, doing household chores or gardening.

“They could actually be burning as much energy as a younger or a healthier weight person would get from jogging or doing something more intense,” Colley said.

“This study is adding to a growing body of evidence that simply reducing sedentary time is beneficial to health and perhaps a more achievable goal for some people to meet who are feeling overwhelmed with taking on a more intense exercise program,” said Colley.

The researchers for Statistics Canada didn’t have individuals reallocate their time experimentally. Instead, they looked at data from the Canadian Health Measures Survey using a mathematical model to look at the associations between health and movement.

Maximizing quality of life 

The health benefits of huffing-and-puffing exercise are well known. But in Canada and internationally, investigators are taking a broader approach to see how physical activity, incidental activity like doing chores, and time spent sleeping, interact, said Valerie Carson, an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Alberta.

“Getting the exercise and that moderate-to-vigorous activity is obviously going to give us the biggest bang for our buck in terms of health, but we also want to be thinking about what we’re doing in the other parts of the day,” said Carson, who was not involved in the research.

“With our aging population, I think some of this information is really important to be thinking about older adults and how to maximize their quality of life.”

Recently, Canada moved toward 24-hour movement guidelines for preschoolers and children to give parents a more holistic look at sleep, exercise and screen time, Colley said.

There’s talk of adopting the same approach to guidelines for adults, to recognize how older adults have different needs.

As expected, Colley said, the researchers also found that increasing exercise was associated with lower measures of obesity and improved scores on self-perceived general health regardless of whether the time came from sleep, sedentary behaviour, or light activity.

Sleep time was self-reported. Participants wore accelerometers to measure their physical activity. Movement such as swimming, cycling and load-bearing exercise weren’t included. 

Carson said ideally the next step would be use an experimental design in the research to try to confirm the findings from 2007 to 2015.

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