The preliminary results from NPR's Body Electric and Columbia University study In part six: host Manoush Zomorodi digs into the preliminary results of the listener study with Columbia University researcher Keith Diaz. He shares the surprising — and encouraging — initial findings from more than 20,000 listeners who tried to incorporate movement breaks into their day.

Also on this episode, listener Dana Lopez Maile describes how the study was a "game changer" for her health. Yiliu Shen-Burke, founder of the augmented reality app SoftSpace, explains his vision of augmented reality. Finally, Manoush explores the future of screen time in a new era of artificial intelligence, and the inextricable convergence of humans and machines.

Click here to find out more about the project: npr.org/bodyelectric

Over 20,000 joined the NPR/Columbia study to move throughout the day. Did it work?

Over 20,000 joined the NPR/Columbia study to move throughout the day. Did it work?

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Daniel Hertzberg
Body Electric Episode 6
Daniel Hertzberg

For the past few weeks, host Manoush Zomorodi has been exploring the relationship between our technology and our bodies — from how our species adopted a sedentary and screen-filled lifestyle, to how screen time is affecting our eyesight, posture, and mental health.

We've also been working with a team of researchers at Columbia University Medical Center to understand how we can offset the detrimental effects of this lifestyle. Earlier this year, that team published a study that found regular movement breaks — five minutes out of every thirty — counteracted the harmful effects of sitting all day. But could it work outside a lab?

We invited NPR listeners to join a new Columbia study to see if they could incorporate regular movement breaks into their day and report back on why they could...or couldn't. More than 20,000 people signed up to participate. Here's what researchers found over the last three weeks.

How Columbia conducted the study

Exercise physiologist Keith Diaz, the head researcher of the study, spoke with Zomorodi to explained the preliminary data. He emphasized that these findings are topline conclusions from preliminary data and will go through the rigor of the peer review process next.

Around 85% of the people who signed up for the study were women, but there was a wide distribution of professions and ages. "We had young adults still in school," Diaz said. "We had older adults, retirees, we had homemakers, we had full time-employed, part time-employed, from every job that you could think of. We had truck drivers to CEOs of companies." Of those who worked, there was a fairly even split between remote, hybrid, and in-person workers.

During the first week, participants simply recorded baseline data, going about their day as normal with no changes to their habits. For the following weeks, participants were broken up into cohorts: one group was asked to take breaks every thirty minutes, a second group would take breaks every hour, and a third group would take breaks every two hours. Participants would report back to the team at Columbia with information on how those movement breaks went.

Of the participants who signed up, Columbia researchers reported that about 60% completed the study. From that data, the team was able to draw several initial conclusions.

The more a participant moved, the better they felt

Diaz said that researchers noticed several positive indicators as they unpacked the data. "Fatigue was reduced by 25%," he said. "Their feelings of positive emotions increased, and their feelings of negative emotions decreased."

Diaz and his team found a "dose response relationship," meaning the more breaks a person took, the better they felt. But even the groups that moved every two hours reported an improvement. "So across the board, it didn't matter, necessarily, how often you moved," Diaz said. "You still had benefit, but you got more benefit the more often you moved."

Even when participants didn't meet their goals, they reported feeling better, Diaz said. The half-hour group reported on average eight movement breaks a day — about half of the target for an eight-hour workday. But Diaz said he expected this: It made sense that people would often either be too busy or forget to take their breaks. "Even though people weren't as compliant as they would be in a lab, we still saw benefits," he said. "I think that was, for me, very powerful to see."

Where we go from here: moving the needle to change our workplace norms

Now that the study has concluded, the team at Columbia will continue to parse the data and begin the peer review process. Beyond that, Diaz said he is excited for the larger implications of frequent movement breaks on our health.

The next phase of research will focus on demonstrating health benefits from movement breaks in the long term, Diaz said — which is why it's so critical to prove that this practice can work in the real world. "To really move the needle and get employers and policymakers on board with making changes to workplace norms, cultures and societal norms and cultures, we have to demonstrate that we could lower people's health risks long-term," he said.

To do that, though, movement breaks need to become habitual. "The aspiration here is to make it like brushing teeth," Diaz said. "Brushing teeth is a health behavior that nobody has to get a reminder to do ... How do we get to that level of building that habit where it's automatic?"

This story was written by Rachel Faulkner White and edited by Amanda Orr. It is part of Body Electric — NPR's 6-part series exploring the relationship between technology and the human body.

Listen to the whole series here. Talk to us on Instagram @ManoushZ, and on Facebook @tedradiohour, or record a voice memo and email it to us at BodyElectric@npr.org.

Body Electric was produced by Katie Monteleone and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour with production support from Rachel Faulkner White.

Original music by David Herman. Our audio engineers were Gilly Moon and Robert Rodriguez.