Even short bouts of physical activity in an otherwise sedentary lifestyle were associated with a significantly lower risk for dying, researchers reported.
In a study of more than 25,000 older adults who didn’t regularly exercise, engaging in a median of just three bouts of vigorous activity for up to 2 minutes each at some point during the day was linked with a 39% lower risk for all-cause mortality versus no activity at all (HR 0.61, 95% CI 0.50-0.74), according to Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD, of the University of Sydney in Australia, and colleagues.
Even the minimum of 1.5 minute-long bouts of exercise per day reaped mortality benefits compared with not engaging in any activity at all (HR 0.75, 95% CI 0.66-0.85). But those at the top of the range in this cohort — getting 11 short bursts of vigorous activity daily (about 16 minutes total) — saw all-cause mortality risk drop by even more (HR 0.52, 95% CI 0.37-0.72).
Beyond all-cause mortality benefits, engaging in just a few minutes of vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity (VILPA) throughout the day was also protective against cardiovascular disease-related mortality, the group reported in Nature Medicine.
Engaging in the median frequency of three 1-minute bouts per day was linked with a 49% lower cardiovascular mortality risk (HR 0.51, 95% CI 0.35-0.74). Again, those that engaged in the maximum frequency saw the biggest benefit (HR 0.35, 95% CI 0.15-0.81). But even engaging in the minimum was still significantly protective against heart-related death (HR 0.67, 95% CI 0.52-0.86).
Stamatakis’s group also found the same pattern in regards to cancer-related mortality risk.
“We found that as little as 3 to 4 minutes of VILPA per day was associated with substantially reduced mortality risk compared to doing no VILPA,” Stamatakis told MedPage Today, noting how these were “very sizeable effect sizes.”
“We were not surprised that we detected beneficial associations; we knew that vigorous physical activity is very potent, especially when it is intermittent and repeated,” he said. “But the large magnitude of the associations was quite surprising, considering how little daily physical activity we are talking about.”
“Interestingly, is not unlikely that participants in this study did not know that they were doing vigorous physical activity,” Stamatakis pointed out.
Participants in the study cohort appeared in the U.K. Biobank, including 14,178 women and 11,063 men with an average age of 62. Over the 7-year follow-up period, 852 deaths occurred. The sample was exclusive to those who said they didn’t engage in regular exercise. This meant they didn’t have a regular fitness routine, didn’t participate in sports, and only walked for recreation no more than once per week. All adults wore an accelerometer to track activity.
These short bursts of vigorous-intensity physical activity were considered a part of daily life. They included instances of short bursts of fast walking during a commute or climbing a set of stairs, for example. Those who engaged in three to four bouts of doing 1-minute of vigorous activity accumulated a median of 4.7 minutes per day of vigorous activity and 27.9 minutes of moderate activity per day.
“The world is experiencing an unending pandemic of lifestyle related chronic disease, and physical inactivity is one of its main driving forces,” Stamatakis explained. “The healthcare systems have a key role to play. Health professionals are a trusted source of information and advice to help people prevent or delay the onset of chronic disease and increase their health span.
“Most healthcare professionals, however,” he said, “are not trained or educated to offer physical activity advice, especially when it comes to encouraging initiation and adherence to a leisure-time exercise program, because the participation bar for leisure time exercise is too high: it demands high levels of motivation, time availability, capacity and willingness to travel to an exercise club or park, and many other conditions that can only be met by a small minority of middle aged and older adults.”
But based on these study results, he explained that healthcare professionals can opt to take a different approach to advocating for physical activity.
“For example, what opportunities exist during everyday life for short bursts of VILPA, such as maximizing the walking pace for a minute or 2 during any regular walk, manually carrying groceries from the supermarket to the carpark, using stairs instead of elevators, replacing short car trips — e.g. less than 1 km [0.62 miles] — with very fast walking, or parking the car a few hundred meters away and instead walking fast to the final destination,” he suggested as tips to provide to patients.
“Provided that this kind of behavior becomes regular and habitual in the long term, there is a good chance it will be followed by health benefits,” said Stamatakis.