Older adults could greatly benefit from breaking up their sedentary time throughout the day, even if it's just shifting from sitting to a standing position, according to a new study.

"As a general finding, older adults should make nine interruptions for every hour spent in sedentary behavior," said Luís B. Sardinha of the Exercise and Health Laboratory at the University of Lisbon in Portugal.

"In fact, just the act of standing-up can be a path to achieve an improved physical function in older ages," said Sardinha, who led the study.

Past research has tied physical activity and fitness among older adults to physical independence, which in turn is linked to a higher quality of life, lower healthcare costs and longer survival, Sardinha and his colleagues point out in the Journals of Gerontology: Series A.

But getting seniors to meet guidelines for moderate physical exercise or to join formal exercise programs is not always easy, they note.

Past studies have also suggested that being sedentary may prompt a cascade of changes in unused muscles that can negatively affect overall health. So the study team set out to see whether just getting up – not engaging in major physical exercise, just moving or standing to activate the muscles – might counteract the effects of being sedentary.

They tracked both physical activity and sedentary behavior in 215 adults between 65 and 94 years old using small accelerometers each participant wore on their hip for four days.

The researchers also assessed the participants’ physical functioning with a group of tests that measure strength, endurance, agility, balance and flexibility, all of which are considered important to maintaining independence later in life.

Then the study team looked at how sedentary behavior, taking breaks in sedentary behavior and moderate to vigorous physical activity were associated with physical functioning.

They found, as other studies have done, that moderate to vigorous physical activity was linked to better physical function.

About two thirds of the participants did some kind of regular exercise, most in an organized program geared to older adults, where they worked out two to three times a week, Sardinha said.

"Still, our data revealed that only one fifth of the participants were meeting the recommendation of 30 minutes a day of moderate-to-vigorous-intensity physical activity," he said.

But the study also found that people who were more sedentary and took fewer breaks had a significantly lower physical function than others who were more active or who broke up their sedentary time more often.

"For the first time, we verified that even in participants spending more time in sedentary behaviors - more than 8.6 hours a day - older adults who break-up this behavior more often had better physical functioning," Sardinha told Reuters Health. "This means about 80 breaks during the course of the day.”

He and his team acknowledge in their report that their study can’t say for sure whether breaks from being sedentary promoted better physical functioning, or whether people with poorer physical function were simply less likely to get up and move around.

Nonetheless, when looking at it from a public health perspective, write the authors, it may be easier to get older adults to interrupt sedentary behavior than to increase more formal and vigorous exercising.

There are “fewer practical limitations in doing so,” and the goal of reducing sedentary behavior can be attained with a “relatively modest burden to a person’s time or financial resources,” the authors say.

Older adults can adopt different strategies to make sure that they keep moving, and most are very simple, Sardinha said. These include standing-up and walking around while talking on the telephone, limiting the amount of time watching television and standing up during commercials, or even standing-up to pick something up instead of asking someone else to do it.

"Our findings highlight that even though older adults may not meet physical activity recommendations, if they break-up sedentary time more often they may experience benefits in aerobic capacity, skeletal muscle performance, flexibility, agility and dynamic balance, attributes that are relevant for physical function in the elderly," Sardinha said.