There has been a surge in research suggesting that sitting too much is hazardous to one’s health. But is standing or walking a more effective alternative? One study aimed to test this in relation to older adults’ metabolic health.

Sixty adults age 65 to 79 were recruited to participate in one of three experimental conditions. In each condition, participants spent 7.5 hours doing typical day-to-day sedentary activities such as reading or watching TV. Blood samples were taken intermittently throughout the experiment, and participants were given two meals. In two of the conditions, participants took a break from sitting every half hour by either standing in place or by walking at a comfortable pace for five minutes. Participants in the third condition remained seated for the majority of the experiment.

Compared to the sitting group, older adults who took walking breaks showed healthier metabolic responses throughout the day, including lower insulin and glucose responses, reduced insulin resistance, lower systolic blood pressure, and less daytime sleepiness. Interestingly, there were no significant differences in metabolic outcomes between the sitting group and the standing group.

The researchers also accounted for effects of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity outside of the experiment by equipping participants with an accelerometer for six days prior to the experiment. There were no differences in physical activity among the groups. Additionally, South Asian older adults in the walking group tended to have a much greater benefit to insulin reduction than white European older adults.

The metabolic responses examined in this study are important indicators of health, and these findings emphasize the importance of staying active throughout the day for older adults of any ethnicity. Altogether, participants in the walking group only engaged in 60 minutes of light physical activity, but that was enough to improve their metabolic health. Brief standing breaks, on the other hand, were not any better for metabolic health than remaining seated. But this outcome may have been different if the standing breaks were longer.

While it may not be practical for everyone to get up and walk around for five minutes every half hour, it may still be important for older adults to stand up and walk around as much as possible.

The above InvestigAge newsletter article was written by Dugan O’Connor for the Mather Lifeways Institute on Aging.