"We were surprised by how difficult it was to reduce sedentary time and that no one approach seemed better than the other approaches," Leon Straker said. He worked on the study at Curtin University in Perth, Australia.
Lots of attention has been paid recently to the dangers of too much sitting, especially for people glued to desk jobs in an office every day.
Research has linked excessive sitting to high blood pressure, obesity and heart disease. Hitting the gym outside work hours doesn't seem to fully offset those risks.
Employees in office desk jobs should keep in mind their total amount of sitting time, and times spent sitting without a break for 30 minutes or more, Straker said.
"Breaking up long periods of sitting with a short active break - like walking to get a drink - is probably the easiest thing to do for most workers, but the challenge is to remember and actually move," he told Reuters Health.
He and his colleagues tested three models for getting office employees up and moving. They randomly assigned Australians from three different workplaces to get one of the anti-sitting interventions.
One group had access to active workstations, with treadmill or cycling desks, which they were recommended to use for 10 to 30 minutes several times per day.
A "traditional exercise" group promoted light to moderate physical activity on breaks and before and after work.
The third group adopted ergonomic workstations, broke up computer tasks and practiced "active sitting," which involves moving around more often and periodically perching on the edge of the chair.
The employees met several times over 12 weeks to discuss putting the measures in place and tried using them.
A total of 133 people were enrolled in the study and divided between the three groups. Of them, 62 finished the study and worked enough days to be included in the analysis.
Before the interventions started and again during their final week, participants wore small devices attached to a belt to measure their sedentary time.
For each workplace strategy, employees spent about eight fewer minutes sitting per day - a reduction in sedentary time of one to two percent, according to results published in PLOS One.
"We expected the ‘Active office' approach to be more effective at reducing work time sedentariness - however organizations found it quite hard to implement the regular use of active workstations," Straker said.
These techniques might be best for people able to manage their own time, with flexible working hours and self-monitored breaks, the authors wrote.
Of the three offices used for the study, one - which primarily was concerned with data processing - had scheduling flexibility, and its workers saw the greatest reduction in sitting time with the interventions. The other two organizations were more rigid and their workers had smaller reductions.
In each case the effects were small, but could be significant if everyone took part at work, Mark Tremblay said.
Tremblay is the director of Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research at Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute in Ottawa. He was not involved in the new study.
"This work is in its infancy," Tremblay told Reuters Health. "A one percent change might not be substantial in and of itself, but it could be the start of a cascade of lifestyle changes," that might lead to real individual health benefits, he said.
"It's encouraging in one respect that there may be some healthy active living modifications that will work for anybody," Tremblay said. But a pervasive office culture where productivity is paramount makes it hard to make even small changes in some workplaces, he said.
"Reducing overall time in sitting may be challenging for some workers, but it is often possible to identify work tasks that can be done standing or gently walking, and workers can also look at how they commute and spend their leisure time to look for opportunities to sit less and move more," Straker said.
Tremblay suggests standing while on the phone, having walking meetings and using a more distant bathroom than the one you usually use.
"Introducing a modest amount of discomfort into your day can be good for your health," he said.