We’re all aware of the golden standard of daily physical activity: get 10,000 steps a day.
Why 10,000? Well, it’s like any other protocol that’s been floating around your lab. Why is that incubation time 10 minutes, and not 5 or 15? The postdoc who gave it to you will say that’s the length of time that was optimized for this particular experiment.
The truth is, it’s the amount of time that that one grad student twenty years ago had before needing to run to class.
So that’s what they did. It worked, so it stuck.
10,000 steps a day isn’t a recommendation from any medical institution; rather, it comes from a pedometer manufactured by a Japanese company in the 60s called “manpo-kei”, which, the internet informs me, translates to “10,000-step meter.”
So, totally arbitrary?
In a way, yeah. But like those old protocols, it’s stuck around because getting 10,000 steps a day has been shown in a number of studies to lower blood pressure, stabilize glucose levels, and improve mood.
It’s not just steps that matter, though.
10,000 steps, depending on your stride length, is roughly 5 miles of walking. Go for a five mile run every morning, hit your 10k, and you’re golden, right?
Not so fast.
While running is of course great for you in terms of weight loss/maintenance, blood chemistry, and overall cardiovascular health, it actually doesn’t do much to protect you from the effects of prolonged sitting.
According to the American Heart Association, sedentary jobs have increased 83% since 1950 – and graduate work definitely counts as a sedentary job.
If you’re anything like me, your daily routine looks like this:
Oversleep. Roll into the lab around 930am, immediately after my adviser dropped in looking for me.
Spend a couple hours sitting at my desk, checking email and planning my experiments for the day.
Spend a couple hours sitting at the bench or the tissue culture hood, pipeting.
Lunch break. Spend half an hour eating lunch while sitting at my desk.
Spend the next 4-5 hours sitting at the bench or the tissue culture hood, pipeting; or, sitting at my computer, analyzing data.
Head home (sitting in the car) around 6 or 7. Eat dinner sitting on the couch.
Spend the rest of the evening sitting on the couch, reading papers or binge watching Netflix (or, let’s be honest, both).
Head to bed around midnight.
Next day: repeat.
Even if I squeeze in an hour at the gym or the track, that’s a lot of sitting.
But I did get my run in, so what’s wrong with being sedentary the rest of the day?
Well, there’s a lot of studies out there showing that prolonged time spent sitting is associated with total mortality (specifically linked to cause of death by coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, kidney disease, liver disease, suicide, and others), type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers, independent of moderate-vigorous intensity physical activity (MVPA) [1-8].
Meaning: Spending an hour or so working out didn’t make a difference.
One large meta-analysis  reported a 34% higher total mortality risk for adults sitting 10 hours per day compared to one hour, even after adjustment for physical activity and other potential confounders like age, gender, and BMI.
Prolonged sitting time has also been shown to have important metabolic consequences, including a negative influence on cardiometabolic factors (triglycerides, fasting plasma glucose, blood pressure, and insulin).
For my non-biomedical readers, none of that is good for you, being directly linked to a number of diseases.
And again, studies show that the risk is the same whether you get in your daily 1-2 hours of moderate exercise or not.
Ten hours sounds like a lot of sitting. But looking back at my daily schedule…yikes. That’s closer to 15-16 hours!
What happens when periods of prolonged sitting are broken up with light activity?
In other words, what happens if you get up and walk around the room every once in a while?
Well, observational studies have shown that breaking up long periods spent in sedentary time is associated with improved cardiometabolic risk factors and decreased all-cause mortality risk – again, even after accounting for MVPA [ 9-13].
Yes, tell me more!
In a study done in overweight and obese physically inactive people, researchers showed that breaking up sitting time with either low- or moderate-intensity physical activity for just two minutes, every twenty minutes prevented the increase in hematocrit, hemoglobin, and red blood cell count and the decrease in plasma volume that was observed during uninterrupted sitting. In the low-intensity group, physical activity offset increased fibrinogen levels.
What does this mean?
Breaking up prolonged sitting with something as simply as walking around the room for two minutes may be important to improving glucose metabolism and decreasing risk of thrombosis (i.e. a blood clot; this why some people like to wear compression socks on long flights).
Okay, but I’m not that overweight, and I play frisbee golf every Wednesday – it’s fine for me to sit, right?
The evidence here is a little more complicated. One study examining young healthy normal weight subjects showed that 1 min and 40 seconds (okay, seriously, why this length of time?) of light-to-moderate exercise every 15 minutes during 9 hours of sitting time lowered post-meal insulin and glucose responses (a good thing, as spikes in insulin are correlated with risk of diabetes) when compared with uninterrupted sitting.
This suggests that how much you weigh doesn’t actually matter here.
When this same amount and intensity of exercise was performed in a 1-bout fashion before the sitting hours (for example, going for a one-hour walk before heading to the lab), they didn’t see an improvement in insulin and glucose responses.
In other words, it was breaking up the sitting time rather than total amount of exercise that mattered.
Another study increased periodic light physical activity in healthy, normal weight adults for four days; on the fifth day, subjects’ lipid profile and insulin sensitivity had improved compared to subjects who did not increase their activity. A third condition in which subjects performed a single bout of MVPA in place of breaking up sitting time did not lead to the same improvements.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re overweight or not, sedentary or lightly active: sitting for long stretches at a time isn’t great for your metabolic health.
But just getting up and walking around changes that.
No seriously, I’m not overweight and I run 5 miles every day. Can I just sit down for a while?
Well, the data here are a little more complicated. The takehome though is that in a physically active subject (i.e. you), breaking up prolonged sitting may have positive if delayed effects on the metabolic profile, and higher physical activity in terms of intensity or duration may be more effective than frequency .
In other words…maybe?
You should probably still get up every once in a while.
Of course, this being science, there are limitations to these studies as well as others with conflicting evidence; I’m not trying to defend a dissertation here.
But based on the evidence, there does seem to be an overall suggestion that if you want to improve your blood health and decrease your risk of disease, getting up from your seat periodically is a great way to do it.
This is where the 10,000 steps comes in.
An average person takes roughly 2000 steps per mile and walks at an approximate pace of 20 minutes per mile. Which means, a ten-minute walking break will net you 1000 steps. If we generously assume that right now you spend about ten hours a day sitting (and not 15-16, yikes), one break an hour will get you to that goal of 10k steps and improved blood chemistry.
Sure. Except I have three experiments to run today, a class to teach, a methods section to write, and five papers to read. When, exactly, am I going to find ten minutes every single hour to walk around?
If you google “How to get 10,000 steps a day,” you’re likely to find such useless advice as walk down every aisle at the grocery store (a great way to come home with junk you don’t need to be eating) or buy a treadmill desk (good luck with justifying that in your R01 R&R budget).
Not only are these tips less than helpful, but they don’t really apply to life working in a lab.
So, just for you, I’ve put together this handy guide to getting 10,000 steps a day in the lab!
#1 Use that other parking lot
Let’s start with the most obvious one: if you are unfortunate enough to not live close enough to campus to bike or walk, you probably drive yourself or else take the bus. Starting off the day sitting before you even get to the lab is starting the day off on the wrong foot (ha).
What to do instead
If you drive, chances are you park in the lot that’s closest to The Building Where Your Lab Is.
Instead, choose one that’s even further away. Knowing most universities’ policy of giving graduate students the crappiest parking spots anyway, this will probably gain you at least 1000 steps on one trip alone.
If your parking and transportation department requires you to park in a specific lot, see if you can negotiate for a different one (bonus: it could be cheaper!).
If you park in a garage
aren’t you lucky, drive straight to the top floor and walk the ramps all the way down (and back up at the end of the day) rather than taking the stairs. When I did this, it was 500 extra steps each time.
Do you take the bus? Just start using the stop right before/past yours.
Yes, even if it’s a billion degrees/snowing ice. Oh, to be alive!
Bonus: Working late? When those primo faculty lots open up at 6pm, walk back to your car and move it to the closest lot possible. This gives you an extra trip, plus you won’t have as far to go after it gets dark.
#2 Stop babysitting the centrifuge
You’re doing an immunoprecipitation, and the protocol involves several washes in the benchtop centrifuge at 5 minutes each.
What do you do for those five minutes?
(Let’s assume that the tubes for the next step are already labeled and set up, because you’re awesome like that.)
You probably spend those five minutes sitting at the bench staring at your phone, or trying to find where you were in that review article you were reading, or having a deeply philosophical discussion with your labmates about Marvel’s Infinity War.
But let’s face it – Facebook holds nothing for you except for the shiny status updates of your college friends who got a high paying industry job right after graduation and now make five times as much money as you do; you’re never going to absorb the ten words you manage to read once you find your place; and seriously, how many times have you hashed this out? Karen is just bitter that her celeb-crush was killed off (#nospoilers).
What to do instead
Take a walk around your department floor; head upstairs and walk around that floor too. Have a paper airplane race in the hallway. The centrifuge will still spin even if you’re not sitting there watching it; nothing bad will happen, I promise.
As long as you balanced it. You did balance it, didn’t you?
If you’re worried about missing the end of your spin and your samples sitting for thirty seconds, bring a timer with you so you know when to hurry back.
Bonus: You might meet a new person walking around the Other Floor, bringing the total number of people you know in this building up to 12.
Take your labmates on the walk with you, and you can not only continue your deeply philosophical discussion, but they’ll benefit from walking as well.
#3 Take a break from writing
Those days when you’re knee-deep in the literature while you try to write your next paper can take a heavy toll on your health.
Without experiments to go tend to, you can easily find yourself spending 10+ hours sitting at your desk, getting up only occasionally for food and bathroom breaks. There’s always one more article to read, one more paper to write – all while your adviser is emailing you daily asking about your progress.
You have no choice but to keep sitting there until you’re done, right?
What to do instead
It’s well-known that taking short breaks can actually lead to a huge boost in productivity. Standing up and walking around improves your blood flow not just to your poor underused muscles, but to your brain as well. More brain power means better focus and more efficient work.
If you have a Fitbit, you can set it to remind you to get up and move every hour. Don’t have a Fitbit? Use your lab timer! Just be sure to stop it at the very first beep or your labmates may mutiny.
No one likes a timer foul.
Once an hour, get up from your desk, stretch, and go for a short walk around your floor; talk to a real live person in another lab for a few minutes. Even better, take a trip up and down the stairs. Four or five flights should net you a solid 300 steps.
(Just remember to take your badge with if you work in a restricted access building – you don’t want to waste ten minutes trying to contact someone to come let you out and have to listen to your labmate gripe about it for the next week. Not that that’s ever happened to me. Definitely not. *cough*).
Bonus: When you get back to your work, you may well have found that perfect way to explain why your results seem to contradict literally every other paper on the subject!
#4 Take advantage of long incubation times
Have an hour-long incubation?
I know it’s tempting to set up yet another experiment or go back to your desk to
watch cat videos read papers.
You will still graduate if you take one extra day to start that transfection, I promise. But that need to constantly be doing, doing, doing isn’t doing anything for your stress levels – or your blood chemistry.
What to do instead
Remember your undergrad years? When you knew every inch of that campus, from the quickest route to get from English 201 to Organic Chemistry 246 in under ten minutes (that may or may not have involved a little parkour and creative bicycle-dodging), to which bathroom on which floor of which building had working locks on all the stalls, to which vending machine gave you Nestle Crunch bars at the exact right temperature?
Or was that just me.
Anyway. Cut to grad school, when some poor freshman in the first week of classes bumps into you on the way to the lab and asks how to get to the Economics building – and all you can say is, “I don’t know, this is only my fifth year.”
Then you watch them flee in abject terror at that vision of their future while you continue on your way to the only building on the entire campus that you know exists: The Building Where Your Lab Is.
Instead, use that incubation time to explore a little!
Take your papers or lunch outside to that green area* you saw on the campus map that you glanced at once during orientation (if you even had an orientation); go find a library or study room on the other side of campus.
Or just walk and take a look at all these cool buildings that aren’t The Building Where Your Lab Is!
Actually, even if you are just going for a walk, take a paper or two along with you. You never know if you’ll run into your adviser on their way back from teaching.
*Of course, there is a high risk that you may be forced to interact with an undergraduate; but they’re not contagious, I promise.
#5 Go see that collaborator you’ve never met
One of the most common recommendations in “How to get 10,000 steps a day” articles is to eschew email and just walk down the hall to talk to your co-worker.
In the lab – in my experience, anyway – that’s not usually an issue.
Either your labmate is sitting at the desk right next to yours all day anyway, or the two of you haven’t been on speaking terms since year two when he “accidentally” knocked over your slides while they were in primary antibody in the cold room.
In that case, email him so you don’t have to talk to his stupid face.
What to do instead
But what about that collaborator of your adviser’s, the one in the Pharmacology Department who’s a co-author on all your papers, has agreed to a position on your committee, who…you’ve never actually met in person?
Instead of emailing them a question about the protocol their technician used for your methods section, walk over. Knock on their office door and introduce yourself; wander around their lab and meet the students and postdocs there.
That increased face-time will be huge in getting them to write you awesome recommendation letters (assuming they actually do their own writing; if they don’t, they’ll be less likely to edit out the glowing praise that you write of yourself) for your fellowship application or spurring casual talks that could lead to a brand new collaboration and two new papers.
And even better, their postdoc just happens to be an expert in molecular cloning who can help you figure out where you screwed up.
(It was the primer design. It’s always the primer design).
This isn’t something you want to do every day, or they’ll wonder why you’re not in your own lab. But try to venture out of your own bubble and visit a different lab or department at least once a week.
Pro tip: Don’t try this with your own adviser.
While it’s always good to prove to them that you are in fact in the lab working – especially early morning or after 5pm – casual pop-ins for just a quick question almost always end with extra work being added to your plate or uncomfortable questions about your lack of progress in the two hours since lab meeting.
Stay safe, and email!
#6 Be a considerate labmate
Sharing a lab is like having roommates.
They’re constantly impinging on your bench space, they don’t wash their own dishes, they’re always borrowing your pipets without asking and not returning them.
With roommates, you can always move out. In grad school, you’re in it together, for the long haul; we’re talking long-term relationship issues here.
How can you stay on speaking terms while getting extra steps?
- Do they have a package at the department office waiting to be picked up? Offer to walk upstairs and get it for them.
- Is the ice in their ice bucket all melty? Walk down the hall and refill it for them; you’re going that way to get samples from the freezer anyway.
- Did they suddenly remember they forgot to turn off the water bath in the tissue culture room? Go do it for them, you could use the break from data analysis.
Bonus: They’ll be more likely to return the favor when you forget to take your media out to thaw you’ll be in the lab in ten minutes you swear!
Of course, there’s always the possibility that absolutely none of this helpfulness has any effect, because your labmates are just plain assholes. But at least you’ll up your step count.
#7 Go to that seminar in the Bioengineering Department
You know the one.
You saw it advertised in the daily campus email newsletter; it has a supercool-sounding title like Low-temperature laser-stimulated controllable generation of micro-bubbles in a water suspension of absorptive colloid particles*.
But you have absolutely no idea what the actual topic even means, and anyway it’s in the Physics Building. That’s, like, not next door to the Building Where Your Lab Is.
Not only will it be a chance to get up from the bench and take a walk, but you never know – it may trigger an idea that would take your own research somewhere new and exciting.
Plus, there might be cookies.
*Actual published paper found by searching Pubmed for “bioengineering laser nano.”
#8 Kill a tree – print out that paper
Gone are the days of scientific yore, when your adviser had to trek all the way to the library, look up an article in the catalog, and then unearth that article in the stacks – just to be able to read what would inevitably turn out to be Not the Paper They Needed.
With the ability to digitalize journal articles, now all we need to do is find them in an online library like Pubmed, open the *.html or download the *.pdf, and read! Thousands of papers at your fingertips, without ever having to leave your desk!
…and that’s the problem, isn’t it?
What to do instead
I’m not suggesting that you wander all the way to your campus’ library and dig out the journal that you need – many libraries don’t even stock physical copies of journals anymore. Although that would get you a nice number of steps.
Rather, instead of reading those papers on your computer screen, kill a tree. Print them out.
Getting up out of your chair in order to go pick them up from the printer is only one reason.
The better, bigger reason: we comprehend words written on paper better than on screens.
There have been a number of studies examining the way the brain reads, and I’ll probably delve into that in a future post because it’s just that cool.
Long story short: reading isn’t just a simple matter of scanning words on a page. It involves:
- Spatial knowledge: Have you ever recalled the answer to a test question by picturing where on the textbook page you read that information?
- Tactile and motor information: holding the book, feeling the paper, turning the page.
- Object recognition: how are the letters and words arranged in lines, curves, and hollow spaces in your biochemistry textbook vs. the trade copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that you’ve read a dozen times? Your brain forms basically a mental map of the words on the page that ties directly to your memory.
The screen is missing all of that; reading text on screens results in impaired comprehension and more difficulty remembering what we just read.
So, if you’re just scanning a paper for one figure or a line in the methods section, by all means, keep it digital.
But if you really want to do a deep dive into that study, do your brain a favor. Print it out. Highlight the hell out of it; write notes in the margin.
All while pacing around your lab or living room.*
Your brain and your blood will thank you.
*If you’re using a wearable device like Fitbit or Apple watch to track your steps, pacing may not generate enough acceleration for the analytical algorithms to register your movement as steps. But you’re still up and moving instead of sitting, so don’t sweat it.
#9 Be inefficient at the bench
Work at the same bench for long enough, and you will have figured out how to have everything that you need within arms’ reach at all times. Buffers on the shelf directly above you; pipet stand to your right (if you’re right-handed; if you’re like me, it’ll be on your left). Tip boxes arranged just so in front of you. Microfuge tubes in the drawer next to your chair.
The result: you can spend an hour or longer without once needing to get up out of your seat.
Negative bonus points if you use your rolly-chair to scoot over to the centrifuge instead of standing up and walking.
Not that I’ve ever done that.
What to do instead*
Don’t worry about wasting time; as a graduate student, you are already a champion procrastinator (don’t pretend you’re not). Adding a slight decrease to your economy of motion while working at the bench will give you plenty of opportunity to stand up and move around:
- Need two ice buckets? Fill them one at a time, when you actually need them.
- Carry one set of reagents from the fridge to your bench, then make a separate trip to go get the reagents for step five after you’ve finished steps one through four.
- Put reagents away as soon as you’re done with them rather than waiting and cleaning up at the very end.
- Wash your dishes immediately after you’ve used them (also known as: being a considerate labmate).
- Use the shaker one bench over from yours (as long as your labmate isn’t using it; don’t be an asshole).
- Get up and make your working solutions fresh each time, instead of relying on the 1x bottle directly in front of you.
…Okay, maybe not that last one.
Bottom line: all these little trips add up and give your blood a chance to flow without significantly impacting your ability to get your work done.
*Please don’t do this if you’re working in a hood or biosafety cabinet. Contamination from disruption of the air barrier = bad.
That’s a lot of walking. Can I just stand at the bench instead of sit?
There is evidence to suggest that standing over sitting is beneficial: one study looking at adult desk-based office workers found a 43% lower post-meal glucose bump and higher calorie (i.e. energy) expenditure when participants worked at a sit-stand desk workstation for 4 hours compared to 4 hours of seated work. In addition, they saw decreased glucose levels overnight after standing vs. after sitting .
So yeah, standing at the bench is definitely better than sitting. But try to move a little, too!
So, what’s the bottom line?
Exercise every day if you can.
Whether you do or don’t, still try to move as much as possible throughout the day. In addition to improving your metabolic health, you’ll sleep better and boost your mood – two things that grad students are in particular need of, and will be the subject of another post.
What about you – any changes that you’ve made to your daily routine to move more and sit less?
**Disclaimer: This post solely addresses effects of prolonged sitting; issues such as weight loss, cardiovascular fitness, resistance training, or prevention of specific diseases are entirely different topics. For the purposes of making small yet beneficial improvements in your metabolic profile, it doesn’t matter how many steps you take in a day so much as when you take them.
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