It’s known as the “Goldilocks day”: the “just right” way to allocate your time to various activities for optimal health.

Sounds like a handy guide to life, right? But is it even possible?

We already have guidelines around how much physical activity adults should get each week. So how many hours per day should we spend standing, sitting or sleeping?

New Australian research published in Diabelogica provides an hour-by-hour breakdown of daily activities to reduce the risk of cardiometabolic diseases, which include disorders of the heart, diabetes and chronic kidney disease.

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The study, from Swinburne University and the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, analyzed more than 2,000 people in the Netherlands, 684 of whom had type 2 diabetes.

Over seven days, they had their waist circumference, blood glucose and insulin levels, cholesterol, blood pressure and triglycerides (a type of fat found in blood) measured.

By examining how participants with the healthiest results divided up their time, the researchers came up with what they say is an optimum day for cardiometabolic health.

Christian Brakenridge from Swinburne’s Center for Urban Transitions led the research, and says the activity plan is “like a North Star” — something to aim towards.

“I think people might kind of baulk at the idea of ​​these strong quantitative guidelines, but the take home message here is we really want people to sit less, move more and sleep for appropriate durations,” Dr Brakenridge says.

The average Australian sits for about eight hours a day but desk-based office workers can spend around 10 hours sitting.

And most of us only get two hours of physical activity per day (that’s light and moderate activity combined), which is about half of what the study recommends.

Light physical activity includes slow walking or doing chores, and moderate to vigorous activity can be brisk walking, jogging or difficult tasks like shoveling.

A man with a bun and a beard irons shirt

Doing chores like ironing counts towards your light physical activity. (Getty Images: Eva-Katalin)

Dot Dumuid is a time-use epidemiologist at the University of South Australia. For years she’s studied the healthiest ways to spend our time.

She provided statistics for the new study, and noted its narrow focus on cardiometabolic risk factors.

“I like when studies put other outcomes in there as well, like cognition, for example.”

Dr Dumuid says very few study participants managed four hours of activity day in, day out.

There’d be a few super-achievers … but that’s not feasible for heaps of people.

“You can do it, but you’d have to give up something else.”

And that activity trade-off is where things get interesting.

Adjusting the levers of your life

The perfect day for your heart might be quite different to the perfect day for your brain.

Dr Dumuid has studied the “optimum” 24 hours for a range of health outcomes, and is particularly interested in what happens when you take time from one category and put it in another.

For example, physical activity is great for heart health. But if it comes at the cost of sleep, Dr Dumuid says it can be detrimental for those with anxiety and depression.

And people need to spend more hours sitting than moving if they want to optimize academic performance and cognitive function, as that’s when we usually do things like study, read or play music.

While Dr Dumuid is yet to come up with a “Goldilocks day” for adults, he has one that he says is most beneficial for the mental, physical and cognitive function of children aged 11 and 12.

But even with children, priorities can shift, and if exams are approaching, a student might need to temporarily adjust the dial to manage their time differently.

To help with this, Dr Dumuid developed an online tool which lets students rank what’s most important for them to give a more personalized 24-hour breakdown.

“One size rarely fits all in population health,” she says.

More than one optimal day

No matter how much time we want to invest in being happy and healthy, not everyone has complete agency over how they spend their day.

There can be many limitations depending on where you live, what you earn and whether your capacity is restricted, for example, by chronic health conditions.

And the daily activity combinations researchers looked at in the new study didn’t include things like social interactions, which can improve mental and physical health.

So how many hours a day should we spend socializing? Recent research in Nature found there’s no universal balance between solitude and socialising.

In fact, solitude (when the person chooses it) can reduce stress levels.

The ‘healthiest’ way to spend 24 hours depends on what you value most

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