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Three minutes of intense exercise a day can improve cardiovascular health in sedentary women

A study found that actions like running to the bus stop or taking the stairs instead of the elevator can reduce the risk of heart disease

Three minutes of intense exercise a day can improve cardiovascular health in sedentary women
A woman runs to catch a bus.NicolasMcComber (Getty Images)
Inés Sánchez-Manjavacas Castaño

Simple things like running to catch the bus, taking the stairs instead of the elevator or carrying some shopping bags home can help improve your cardiovascular health. This concept, recently named VILPA (vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity), seeks to incorporate exercise into daily routines. A recent study carried out by several universities, including those of Sydney, Cádiz and Southern Denmark, found that a daily average of 3.4 minutes of this type of activity can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in sedentary women by up to 45%.

For the study, the scientists used a sample of more than 22,000 people with an average age of 62. They wore an accelerometer for a week to measure their level of physical activity, and then they were followed up for eight years. In addition to the overall drop in the risk of cardiovascular disease, the researchers also observed a 51% decrease for myocardial infarction and 67% for heart failure. Borja del Pozo, health researcher at the University of Cádiz and one of the authors of the study, explains that the key to incorporating intensity into these daily tasks is to “get a little out of breath” when doing them.

The point of working with such short amounts of time is to be able to reorganize the day to include some periods of exercise, continues the researcher. Even so, Inés García, a researcher at the Spanish National Center for Cardiovascular Research, thinks that the average of 3.4 minutes of VILPA that the participants performed is “really short.”

One of the hypotheses considered by Emmanuel Stamatakis, lead author of the study, is that VILPA, if repeated regularly, can improve cardiorespiratory fitness (also known as aerobic fitness) over time. This is an important determinant of the risk of cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death in the world; people with poor cardiorespiratory fitness are more likely to suffer from these problems, the scientist points out.

Manuel Anguita, spokesperson for the Spanish Society of Cardiology, emphasizes that one should not settle for the effect of just a little physical activity: “This is fine if you do nothing, but the more, the better.” Both he and García point out that the World Health Organization recommends at least 75 to 150 minutes of intense aerobic activity a week.

The three experts agree that these peaks of intense physical activity do not replace actual exercise; if people that do not go beyond this brief activity are compared with those who practice sports regularly, Anguita explains, “they would clearly continue to have a much worse outlook.” Del Pozo points out that they are two different concepts, and that the VILPA research can help create complementary recommendations. Stamatakis states that the fact that this activity does not require expenses, a time commitment or going to a gym, can represent “important practical advantages over structured exercise.”

Not a substitute for working out

Del Pozo explains that this is the first time that the effect of exercise micropatterns has been analyzed separately in sedentary women and men. In the study, they attribute the different results to genetic differences. The energy expenditure is very similar, but in the case of women it requires more intensity. The authors suggest that it would be advisable to develop physical activity guidelines for each gender, something that García considers “quite reasonable.”

Another study from 2022, also led by Stamatakis, linked a minimum of three to four minutes of VILPA a day with a decrease of up to 28% in all-cause mortality. With three daily sessions, the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease could drop by 48%-49%.

For Del Pozo, this type of research can be useful to find out how these micropatterns of physical activity affect people’s health. However, he says, this concept has not been sufficiently studied, and a future step of the work in which he participated should be to try to replicate these results in other populations. The scientist points out that the sample used only represents 5% of the British population, and that most of them were healthy. “There are good signs, but we need more studies, more results.”

Globally, one in four adults does not meet the global recommended levels of physical activity, according to the WHO. This kind of data is what makes the findings of this research “interesting,” states García. Activity patterns such as VILPA could make it easier for some people to incorporate exercise into their daily lives, and they “reinforce the idea of consistency, that doing physical activity every day is very positive,” concludes the researcher.

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