Study suggests seated upper body physical activity can reduce risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes made worse by sitting

A new study conducted at the NIHR Leicester Biomedical Research Centre (BRC), including researchers from our University, has found that breaking up prolonged bouts of restful sitting with short, frequent bouts of simple seated arm exercises can benefit obese patients at high risk of type 2 diabetes.

The research team at the Leicester BRC, which is a partnership between Leicester’s Hospitals, the University of Leicester and Loughborough University, had their findings published in the journal Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism. Their research examined the blood sugar levels of participants after meals in two conditions: during prolonged sitting, and sitting that was interrupted regularly with short bursts of upper body exercises using table-top arm cranks.

The authors found that blood sugar levels after meals reduced by approximately 57% when participants completed the exercises, compared to levels when meals were followed by inactivity.

Matthew McCarthy, a PhD student from our Department of Cardiovascular Sciences, who is part of the research team based at Leicester General Hospital, said: “Finding that seated upper body physical activity reduces the level of glucose in the blood after meals is significant because we know that lower blood sugar levels reduce the risk of acquiring heart disease and type II diabetes.

“The findings of this study could be applied in more situations. Sitting at our desks for a long time is a common issue in modern society. One remedy that is often suggested is to take frequent short duration walking breaks. However, not everyone is able to do this because they may be wheelchair-bound or have diabetic foot complications and are advised not to bear weight.

“Completing short bursts of upper body activities using resistance bands or table-top arm cranks may be a way for these groups of people to activate their muscles and reduce their blood sugar levels after eating without having to get out of their seat."

Dr Thomas Yates, a Reader in Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviour and Health at our University and Principal Investigator for the study, said: “This is a great proof-of-concept study. What will be interesting in the future is to see how many times during the day participants would need to interrupt their sitting with upper body exercises to get the greatest benefits in terms of reducing their blood sugar levels after eating.”

The study was funded by the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) – the research arm of the NHS - as part of the NIHR Leicester BRC, a collaboration between researchers and clinicians at Leicester’s Hospitals, the University of Leicester and Loughborough University.

The paper, ‘Breaking up sedentary time with seated upper body activity can regulate metabolic health in obese high risk adults: a randomised crossover trial’, published in the journal Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism, is available here.