Columbia Researcher and NPR Ask Listeners to ‘Walk the Walk’ in Real-World Study

With the help of an NPR podcast, researcher Keith Diaz is trying to identify, and break, the barriers that keep people from being active

As a graduate student, Keith Diaz, PhD, an exercise physiologist and researcher at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, read a news article claiming that exercise is not enough to undo the damage from prolonged sitting.  

"I remember thinking that just couldn’t be right—exercise is the best thing that you can do for your body," Diaz says. 

Since then, Diaz has devoted his career to understanding the health impacts of sitting for long periods of time and identifying the least amount of physical activity needed to offset those negative effects.  

“Over time, my lab’s research helped me arrived at the conclusion that a healthy movement profile goes beyond exercising for 30 minutes per day.” 

Keith Diaz, right, and members of his exercise physiology lab team, including research coordinator Maggie Murdock, left, are trying to take more walking meetings. Credit: Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

In fact, his research showed that smaller "movement snacks" may be just as important to overall health as longer bouts of vigorous physical activity. 

His latest study suggests that movement snacks as short as one minute of walking every hour may be enough to mitigate some of the harms of prolonged sitting. That study, published earlier this year, found that, compared to sitting all day, short walking breaks can significantly improve blood pressure, blood sugar levels, fatigue, and mood. 

Though the study was small, the results were widely reported in the news and inspired many people to try adding short stints of walking into their workday. 

Diaz acknowledges that his study had limitations: “Our study was conducted in a controlled laboratory setting—the participants had to get up when we told them—and not everyone has these opportunities or the motivation in the real world.” 

People who sit for long periods of time at work or school may not always have the ability to take walking breaks throughout the day, no matter how beneficial it may be for their health. “It would be useful to understand whether brief walking breaks are doable and identify any barriers so we can find ways to overcome them,” Diaz says.  

But that kind of study, involving thousands of people, would require years to plan and execute, and Diaz put the idea in the back of his mind until an NPR journalist called with an unusual request. 

When researcher meets podcast host 

Diaz, whose sitting research has piqued public interest in health and exercise, is no stranger to media requests. 

But this request was different. 

NPR explained it was developing a new podcast series called "Body Electric," which would focus on how technology influences health. The plan was to describe Diaz’s research in the first episode and ask listeners if they could fit short walking breaks into their daily routines. Tech reporter and host Manoush Zomorodi would also try out a walking regimen and use her experience and results to help tell the story.  

With an audience of this size, Diaz realized that NPR’s listeners might be able to help him understand how well his intermittent walking regimens work in the real world. So he agreed to help the podcast and design a study for its listeners.

Adapting the study for podcast listeners 

To create the study, Diaz had to change his approach to conducting the research he originally had in mind. 

In previous studies, Diaz and his team had a heavy "human touch" to help guide participants through the rigors of sitting for hours in their lab and taking prescribed walking breaks on a treadmill. Blood was drawn from participants, who also had their blood pressure and heart rate measured. 

Keith Diaz tests Maggie Murdock's blood pressure. Credit: Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

The new study would have to be fully automated and remote. It won’t be possible to measure biological changes in the participants; instead, they will be asked about their mood and energy levels, whether they took their prescribed walking breaks, and if anything helped them get up for a walk when prompted or kept them in their seats.

The first episode aired on Oct 3 and participants can sign up through Sunday, Oct. 8, at 11:59 pm ET.

Next steps 

As with any study, Diaz hopes to publish the results in a scientific journal. But he also plans to use the data to design effective studies outside of the lab to compare multiple walking regimens people could follow in their everyday lives. These smaller studies, unlike the large NPR study, could also take advantage of home blood pressure machines and other devices to collect biometric data to measure the health effects. 

“Working with NPR and seeing how much thought goes into crafting content to have the most impact has been a great takeaway for me, personally,” Diaz says. “My hope is that the participants from the podcast allow us to identify some of the social norms that need to be changed so people can incorporate more movement into their everyday routine and ultimately, improve health.”   


More information 

The first episode of "Body Electric," a podcast series hosted by NPR, can be found here

Keith Diaz, PhD, is the Florence Irving Associate Professor of Behavioral Medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.