One-minute spurts of exercise throughout the day can help you live longer and better

A study shows that small, intense bursts of intense physical activity reduces mortality risk almost 50%

Ejercicio fisico
Walking quickly uphill, climbing stairs or carrying groceries, for just four or five minutes each day, brings significant benefits to reduce the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.MIGUEL OSES (GTRES)

Two studies published in the October issue of the European Heart Journal, using data from more than 70,000 adults from the United Kingdom’s Biobank, concluded that just 20 minutes of vigorous physical activity a week can reduce mortality associated with all causes, in addition to reducing risk of cardiac illness by 40%.

A new article by researchers from the University of Sydney, published in Nature Medicine, used data from the British Biobank to examine the accelerometers of 25,000 people who did not exercise regularly, with an average age of 60 years, over about seven years. The study argues that small one-minute bursts of intense exercise during a daily routine – carrying groceries home, walking rapidly to work or climbing stairs, for example – can have a significant impact on the health of sedentary people.

“This is the first study with wearables centered specifically on the health effects of physical activity that is part of daily life,” the doctor Emmanuel Stamatakis, one of the study’s authors, explains to EL PAÍS. Given that more than 70% of middle-aged people in most of the world do not exercise regularly in their free time, it is necessary to better understand how those people can benefit from the incidental physical activity that is part of their daily routines.

This is what scientists have named “vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity,” or VILPA. Stamatakis notes that it has practical advantages over structured exercise: it does not involve any expense, special arrangements or time commitment, nor transportation to a gym or other center.

“In our research, we found that as little as three to four one-minute bursts of VILPA per day were associated with a nearly 50% reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease-related mortality, compared with people who did not perform that exercise, and almost 40% in the risk of mortality from all causes and from cancer. We were not surprised to find benefits, because we knew that vigorous physical activity is very potent, especially when it is intermittent and repeated, but we were surprised by the large magnitude of the associations considering how little daily physical activity was involved in VILPA in terms of total duration,” argues the author.

Not surprisingly, the benefits for cardiovascular health observed with just 4.4 minutes of VILPA a day —that is, just 30 minutes of intense physical activity a week— are comparable to those in other recent studies that recommended between 75 and 150 minutes of VILPA a week.

“This is a very interesting study, because it highlights the potential benefits of short bouts of intense exercise in people who do not consider themselves to be athletes and who report that they do not exercise in their spare time, suggesting that short bouts of intense physical activity completed during routine daily activities, for example, walking briskly uphill, climbing stairs, or carrying groceries, even for a total of just 4 to 5 minutes per day, have important benefits in reducing the risk of death from cardiovascular disease, cancer, or all causes,” reflects Dr. Fernando de la Guía, coordinator of the Sports Cardiology working group of the Spanish Society of Cardiology.

Research results showed greater health benefits with an increase in the bursts of intense exercise performed. Specifically, the maximum of 11 VILPA bursts per day was associated with a 65% reduction in the risk of cardiovascular death and a 49% reduction in the risk of cancer-related death, compared with people who did not perform any activity.

“What the study tells us is that we have to move. With four minutes you get benefits, yes, but if we manage to do ten bursts of one minute, much better. And in the end, repeating that routine of 10 bursts of VILPA daily is already getting us closer to the pattern of a person who does physical exercise, to the minimum physical activity threshold recommended by the WHO, and the pattern of the switch phenotype, that is, with more transitions from sitting to moving,” says Dr. Amelia Carro, a specialist in preventive and sports cardiology and director of the Corvilud Institute in Candás, Asturias. She notes, though, that two minutes of movement a day is not enough.

“You have to do physical exercise, mainly strength, which are the exercises that we have been forgetting. People keep going for walks, but they have stopped carrying shopping bags because they order them delivered from the supermarket or climbing stairs because they take the elevator. Those muscle-strengthening exercises are essential on a daily basis,” she adds.

Turn daily activities into bursts of intense exercise

As Stamatakis points out, any domain of daily life is susceptible to becoming VILPA simply by increasing the intensity of the action and carrying it out in a more energetic and vigorous way. “There are many examples, from increasing the pace of a walk for one or two minutes, to choosing to climb stairs instead of using elevators, to choosing routes that involve walking uphill, carrying shopping bags for 100 or 200 meters, or playing games that involve intense movement with children or pets,” explains the researcher from the University of Sydney.

For Dr. Fernando de la Guía, the conversion of daily routines into bursts of physical exercise is one of the study’s important takeaways. In his opinion, administrations “should emphasize and promote this type of activity, which is very easy and simple to carry out, among a large population group that is defined as sedentary, who does not engage in physical activity of any kind, because these results reflect that carrying out short periods of more intense physical activity would improve their health.”

Stamatakis agrees. He believes that if further research confirms the results of his study, the findings could lead to a paradigm shift in physical exercise recommendations, with implications for public health and clinical guidelines. “Currently, the WHO guidelines on physical activity emphasize that all activity counts, but do not make specific recommendations encouraging short but regular bouts of VILPA throughout the day. Considering the feasibility advantages of carrying out VILPA bursts, compared to conventional leisure-time exercise practice, and how few adults exercise regularly, future guidelines would benefit from focusing more on activities that are carried out as part of daily routines,” he concludes.

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