Sit less, move more: 5 ways to squeeze more physical activity into your day

Let’s talk about exercise. Maybe you love it, maybe you tolerate it, maybe the mere mention of it draws a cringe. We all know the value of exercise but turning that knowledge into action can be a challenge.

But did you know that simply moving more throughout the day can actually improve your health? This is good news for those of us who have a hard time hitting the gym every day.

The difference between exercise and physical activity

See, exercise is a form of physical activity. However, not every physical activity is exercise. Exercise is structured, repetitive, designed to improve your overall fitness — think weight training, running, aqua aerobics, Pilates and such. Physical activity is normal movement of your skeletal muscles — walking upstairs, mowing your yard, doing housework chores, etc.

Physical activity helps reduce anxiety and blood pressure, improve quality of sleep and insulin sensitivity, and fend off the progression of Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans published by Health and Human Services (HHS), simply moving more frequently throughout the day provides substantial and immediate benefits. Physical activity helps reduce anxiety and blood pressure, improve quality of sleep and insulin sensitivity, and fend off the progression of Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. While this is not an excuse to avoid exercising, it’s encouraging to know that a little physical activity goes a long way.

Regardless of your current level of fitness or underlying health conditions, simply being active opens up all sorts of new ways to live healthier.

Why physical activity matters for your diabetes risk

Moving throughout the day can significantly reduce your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. If you are already living with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, physical activity helps improve blood sugar control and decrease your risk of complications like heart disease. With that in mind, let’s put our knowledge into action.

Related: What is prediabetes and can you reverse it?

Here are some practical ways to get up and moving throughout your day.


Put on your walking shoes.

A 10-minute walk after eating can help you control your post-meal blood sugar more than exercising for 30 minutes once a day. The National Weight Control Registry, which identifies the characteristics of individuals who have succeeded at long-term weight loss and maintenance, says a whopping 94 percent of successful weight loss maintainers increased their physical activity, with the most frequently reported form of activity being simple walking.

Head outside.

Moving your activity outside to a wooded environment or forest can improve cardiovascular function, blood pressure, heart rate and stress levels — and even lower your risk of diabetes. If you live in a walkable neighborhood or near a park or forest, take the opportunity to enjoy a breath of fresh air.

Take a stretch break.

Simple stretching exercises can help you maintain joint health (something diabetes is known to impact over time), increase flexibility and improve range of motion. If you have limited mobility that keeps you from normal physical activities, you can still stretch to help maintain mobility and manage blood glucose levels.

Not to mention, taking a few minutes to stretch every day can improve your mental health and mood.

Related: Exercises that can boost your mental health

Think outside the box.

Some of the most common, domestic, leisure time activities you may not associate with exercising (such as walking, gardening or yard work, dancing, swimming and golf) can help improve your overall health, reduce your hemoglobin A1c and risk of cardiovascular disease, and at the same time, have the lowest reported injury rates. Plus, these are usually things you enjoy doing, so they won’t feel like exercise.

Make a plan (and stick to it).

Take the time to think ahead and build a custom “being active” plan. Whatever activity you choose should be:

  • Something you like. You’re more likely to stick with it.
  • Something small. You’re less likely to burn out and you can always gradually increase the length of time.
  • With someone you like. It’s typically more fun and motivating that way.
  • Something you can easily set a SMART goal towards. S stands for specific, M for measurable, A for attainable, R for realistic, and T for timely.

Try brainstorming actionable ideas like, “Walk the nature path in my neighborhood park every weekday evening at 6 p.m. for 20 minutes with my friend Ann.” Or, “Do resistance band stretching from my chair each morning with my husband on the backyard pergola after we get up.” Or, “Volunteer one day a week in the afternoon at the children’s hospital to help with their outside gardening tasks.”

Related: 7 ways a plant-based diet can help you manage diabetes

The research says any amount of physical activity will help. The hardest part is getting started! Talk to your care team about ways to be more active. They can help you discover what “sit less, move more” might look like in your life.

Find a doctor near you.

About the author

Lynn McLellan, RD, CDCES
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Lynn McLellan is a registered dietician, certified diabetes care and education specialist and the current coordinator for the Diabetes Self-Management Education program at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Temple. The program launched in 1981 and is now among the longest running, ADA-certified diabetes education classes in the U.S. The program also hosts a free monthly diabetes support group open to the community.

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Sit less, move more: 5 ways to squeeze more physical activity into your day