Building regular movement breaks into your day


Do you tend to sit for long periods?

Most of us do. We sit and stare at our screens or textbooks for large chunks of the day.

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Sitting is the new smoking”. It sounds dramatic, but sitting for 30 minutes or more leads to:

• Reduced blood flow to the brain
• Increased blood pressure
• Increased blood sugar
• Reduced positive emotions

Even if you exercise at the gym, if you sit all day at work or school, that’s not good for you.

Most of us know we should move more and sit less, but knowledge doesn’t always translate into action.

I’ve known for years about the harms of sitting. Every year, I’d set a goal “To move more during the day”. But it wasn’t until this year that I finally got off my butt and started taking regular movement breaks. In this blog, I’ll share what made all the difference.

From vague goals to specific targets

Part of my problem was telling myself to “move more” and “sit less”. This was way too vague for my brain.

When it comes to taking movement breaks, how long should we move for? How frequently? And at what intensity?

I recently came across a brilliant study, published in 2023, that answered some of these questions.

A team of researchers at Columbia University compared different doses of movement on several health measures (e.g., blood sugar, blood pressure, mood, cognitive performance, and energy levels).

The researchers were interested in exploring how often and for how long we need movement breaks to offset some of the harms of sitting for long periods.

So, what did they do in this study?

Researchers brought participants into the lab and made them sit in an ergonomic chair for 8 hours. Participants could only get up to take a movement break or go to the toilet.

They tested five conditions:

• Uninterrupted sedentary (control) condition (Note: no movement breaks)
• Light-intensity walking every 30 minutes for 1 minute
• Light-intensity walking every 30 minutes for 5 minutes
• Light-intensity walking every 60 minutes for 1 minute
• Light-intensity walking every 30 minutes for 5 minutes

What did they find?

The optimal amount of movement was five minutes every 30 minutes. This movement dose significantly reduced participants’ blood sugar and blood pressure and improved their mood and energy levels.

That said, even a low dose of movement (one minute of movement every 30 minutes) was found to be beneficial.

Although walking has been described as ‘gymnastics for the mind’ and numerous studies show brisk walking can improve cognitive performance, they found no significant improvements in participants’ cognitive performance in this particular study.

You can read the full study here.

Life out in the real world

When it comes to any research conducted in the lab, the question worth asking is: Is it possible for people to do this in the real world? And if so, will they experience similar benefits?

Journalist Manoush Zomorodi wanted to find out. So, she teamed up with Columbia University researchers to explore whether people could incorporate regular five-minute movement breaks into their day.

They created a two-week challenge where people could sign up to one of three groups:

1) Five-minute movement breaks every 30 minutes
2) Five-minute movement breaks every hour
3) Five-minute movement breaks every two hours

Over 23,000 people signed up to participate in the challenge. Sixty per cent completed the challenge.

What did they find?

Five-minute movement breaks improved people’s lives, whether taken every half hour, hour, or two hours. They felt less tired and experienced more positive emotions.

Here’s what was interesting . . .

They found a dose-response relationship. This meant that the more frequently people moved, the more benefits they gained.

In the Body Electric podcast, Columbia University researcher Dr Keith Diaz said a preliminary analysis of the data showed:

• People who moved every 30 minutes improved their fatigue levels by 30%.
• People who moved every hour improved their fatigue levels by 25%.
• People who moved every 2 hours improved their fatigue levels by 20%.

Here’s the thing, though . . .

Dr Diaz pointed out that most people weren’t getting all their exercise breaks in. On average, they took eight movement breaks each day (note: the researchers recommended 16 movement breaks a day), but they still experienced benefits.

Here’s what I take from all of this . . .

You don’t have to do this perfectly. There are no hard and fast rules. Doing some movement is better than doing no movement.

All movement matters. It all adds up.

Making movement breaks a habit

Although movement is natural and good for the mind and body, my brain often resists the thought of getting up and moving (“No! I don’t want to get out of this cosy chair!”).

What’s up with that?

In the book Move the Body, Heal the Mind, Dr Jennifer Heisz explains that our brains hate exercise for two reasons:

1) The brain doesn’t want to expend energy; and
2) Exercise can be stressful.

This has to do with how our brains are wired and our deep evolutionary programming.

If we go back in time, our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to be constantly on the move to gather food, build shelter and run from hungry animals. All of this activity required a lot of energy. Since food was scarce and energy was limited, hunter-gatherers had to conserve their energy.

If you were to offer a hunter-gatherer a free meal and a comfortable place to stay, would they take it? You bet they would.

The problem is our brains haven’t changed in thousands of years. We still have the same brain wiring as our ancient ancestors.

This is why my brain often throws a tantrum and comes up with all sorts of excuses to avoid my morning workout.

In this modern world, with all the calorie-dense fast food, comfy chairs, and modern conveniences, our brains get confused.

As evolutionary psychologist Dr Doug Lisle, author of The Pleasure Trap, states, in the modern world:

“What feels right is wrong. And what feels wrong is right.”

Understanding that we operate with an ancient brain that isn’t suited to this modern world opens up new possibilities. For example, you can use your prefrontal cortex (the rational part of your brain) to override the primitive instinct to stay comfortable.

Here are some strategies I’ve been experimenting with to get me taking regular five-minute movement breaks:

1. Timers in every room

I’ve strategically placed electronic timers in every room I spend a lot of time in (e.g., my office, outdoor desk, and dining room). Before I sit down to start a task, I set a timer for 25 minutes.

When the timer goes off, that cues my brain to get up and move.

2. Turn it into a fun game

When the timer goes off, I usually jump on my treadmill for a five-minute walk. But not always.

Whenever I feel like doing something different, I play a little game with myself.

The game is simple:

I roll a dice with different movement activities I wrote on each side. Whatever activity it lands on, I do it.

Here are the activities currently listed on my dice:

• Pick up a set of dumbbells and do some bicep curls
• Do some stretches on my yoga matt
• Use resistance bands
• Go outside and walk around my garden
• Do squats
• Hit play on an upbeat track and dance!

3. Negotiate with your brain

Sometimes, the timer going off will not be enough to get you up and moving. You may need to have a few words with your brain.

I often find myself negotiating with my brain, trying to convince myself to get up and move.

Me: “Come on, it’s time to get up.”
Brain: “Noooo! It’s nice and comfy here.”
Me: “On the count of three, we’re going to do this . . . 1 . . . 2. . . 3.”

Be gentle with your brain. Remember, it’s wired for comfort.

4. Make it easy to move

There’s a reason I have stretch bands hanging on door knobs, a yoga mat rolled out on my dining room floor, a rack of dumbbells next to my desk, and comfortable walking shoes always on my feet. All of these little things make it easy for me to move.

Look around your workspace: is there anything that makes it hard for you to move? Identify any barriers and do what you can to remove them.

5. Use a treadmill desk, walking pad, or cycle desk

Instead of stopping to take a movement break, can movement become part of what you do?

For instance, I wrote the first draft of this blog as I walked at a slow pace on my treadmill desk, and I edited it while pedalling at my cycle desk.

Remember, movement doesn’t need to be strenuous to be effective. Light-intensity movement delivers results.

6. Create a ‘I Dare You Not to Move’ playlist

I recently finished reading an excellent book called Creative First Aid: The science and joy of creativity for mental health. It is packed full of creative practices to help calm your nervous system.

One of the practices the authors suggest is creating a playlist of songs called ‘I Dare You Not to Move’. This playlist is a selection of songs that make you want to dance.

On a movement break, I close my blinds and hit play on one of my favourite dance tracks.

Don’t consider yourself much of a dancer? No problem! Sway your hips from side to side or throw your hands in the air and make some circles with them.

7. Remind yourself that movement will make you feel good

Even though it may feel good in the moment to stay seated in a comfy chair, I have to regularly remind myself that movement makes me feel good (and less stiff and achy).

Remember, whenever we force ourselves to get up and move, we go against our brain’s programming. This is why these reminders are so important.

Before stepping onto the treadmill to do a run, I say to myself, “This is good for me. You won’t regret doing this”. And you know what? I always feel better after a workout.

8. Plan your movement breaks with tiny habits

What is something you already do on a regular basis?

It could be making a cup of tea, preparing lunch, or putting on your shoes.

According to the Tiny Habits Method, the key to forming habits is to attach a tiny behaviour to a pre-existing habit. For example:

• After I put on the kettle, I will do five wall push-ups.
• After I shut down my computer, I will do arm circles for 30 seconds.
• After I put my lunch in the microwave, I will march on the spot.
• After I pick up the phone, I will stand up to walk and talk.
• After I notice I am feeling sluggish, I will hit play on an upbeat song.

If you want to wire in this new movement break quickly, celebrate after moving your body (i.e. release a positive emotion). I tell myself, “Good job Jane!”. But usually, the movement leaves me feeling good, so it’s not always necessary.

To sum up

The science is in. We know breaking up periods of sitting with regular five-minute movement breaks can make a big difference to our mental and physical health. The good news is you don’t even have to break a sweat to experience these benefits (light-intensity movement will do the job).

If you can’t manage moving every half hour, no problem. Do what you can. Some movement is better than no movement. On that note, is it time to get up and move? Let’s do this together. How about a light walk? Or a short dance break?

On the count of three . . . one . . . two . . . three. Let’s go!