Well-Being Longevity

Minute-long bursts of vigorous exercise during daily tasks linked with lower risk of death: study

“A few very short bouts totalling three to four minutes a day could go a long way, and there are many daily activities that can be tweaked to raise your heart rate for a minute or so.”
Mother running to catch daughter.

Story at a glance

  • Completing short bursts of vigorous activity each day is linked with up to a 40 percent reduced risk of dying from any cause.

  • That’s according to new data collected from over 25,000 UK Biobank participants.

  • Findings show activities like running for the bus or climbing a flight of stairs can have benefits similar to high-intensity interval training. 

For those who don’t like going to the gym — or don’t have room in their schedule — new study findings offer good news. 

Even minute-long bursts of vigorous exercise during daily tasks may be enough to significantly reduce the risk of premature death, especially from cardiovascular disease.

Writing in the journal Nature Medicine, the authors of the study explained how three to four one-minute bursts of vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity (VILPA), such as climbing stairs, were linked with up to a 40 percent reduction in all-cause and cancer-related deaths and up to a 49 percent reduction in deaths related to heart disease over seven years of follow-up.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among U.S. men and women, CDC data show.

Additional examples of the activity could include running for the bus, power walking while running errands, playing high-energy games with kids, or any activity that leaves you huffing and puffing, researchers said. The study is the first of its kind to examine the relationship between the short bursts of exercise and mortality outcomes. 

Nearly 90 percent of study participants did at least some intermittent lifestyle activity while 93 percent of all bouts lasted up to one minute. The steepest gains in reduced risks were seen among those who completed four to five bouts per day compared with inactive individuals.

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Larger benefits were seen among those with had a larger number of bursts of activity.

A maximum of 11 instances per day was associated with a 65 percent reduction in cardiovascular death risk and a 49 percent reduction in cancer death risk, compared with those who did not perform any vigorous activity. 

“Our study shows similar benefits to high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can be achieved through increasing the intensity of incidental activities done as part of daily living, and the more the better,” said lead study author Emmanuel Stamatakis, a professor of physical activity, lifestyle and population health at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre, in a statement. Findings were adjusted for factors like age, sex, alcohol use and smoking. 

“A few very short bouts totaling three to four minutes a day could go a long way, and there are many daily activities that can be tweaked to raise your heart rate for a minute or so,” Stamatakis added. 

To carry out the study, more than 25,000 non-exercisers enrolled in the UK Biobank wore wearable devices that tracked movement patterns for a week. The mean participant age was 62 and the majority of those who took part were female. 

Over the course of 7 years, 852 individuals passed away, with 266 deaths attributed to cardiovascular disease and 511 to cancer. 

Researchers then compared findings with biobank participants who regularly exercised. They found “VILPA in nonexercisers appears to elicit similar effects to [vigorous physical activity] in exercisers, suggesting that VILPA may be a suitable physical activity target, especially in people not able or willing to exercise.”

In the United States, just over half of adults over the age 18 meet aerobic physical activity guidelines, while only 23 percent meet the guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity, according to the CDC.  

Because the activities require a minimal time commitment and no specific preparation, facility access or equipment, they may be a more feasible alternative to structured exercise for adults, the authors wrote.

They also called for an update to existing exercise guidelines, as the new data suggest benefits can be gained outside of structured vigorous physical activity. 

“Our previous knowledge about the health benefits of vigorous physical activity comes from questionnaire-based studies, but questionnaires cannot measure short bouts of any intensity,” said Stamatakis.

“The ability of wearable technology to reveal ‘micropatterns’ of physical activity, such as VILPA, holds huge potential for understanding the most feasible and time-efficient ways people can benefit from physical activity, no matter whether it is done for recreation or as part of daily living.”