A little exertion can go a long way in improving health, according to a new study.
The research, published Thursday in the journal Nature Medicine, suggests that short bursts of intense movement — the kind that leaves you huffing and puffing — is associated with a lower risk of premature death.
For the study, researchers at the University of Sydney analyzed a collection of data from around 25,000 people in the U.K. who wore wrist devices that tracked their movement.
The researchers looked at physiological data the wrist trackers recorded over a one-week span. They chose participants who'd said they did not exercise or play sports and went on one or fewer recreational walks per week.
But 89% of those people, the analysis found, still exerted themselves through daily activities like climbing flights of stairs, running for the bus or carrying heavy groceries. The researchers defined this type of heart-rate-raising movement as "vigorous activity."
Just one to two minutes of such activity three to four times daily, the results showed, was associated with an up to 40% lower risk of death over the course of seven years, relative to the people who did not engage in any vigorous activity. The risk of dying from heart disease was reduced even further: up to 49%.
The participants' average age was 62, so the researchers presumed that their activity levels in the week studied were representative of their lifestyles overall.
"Because adults have formed habits, their lifestyle is quite crystallized. It’s reasonably consistent over time," said Emmanuel Stamatakis, the study’s lead author and a professor of physical activity and population health at the University of Sydney.
The study also looked at a group of 62,000 people who regularly exercised and had intermittent bursts of vigorous activity in their daily lives, and similarly found a lower risk of death compared to people who did not engage in any vigorous activity.
"We get a lot back for our time invested with vigorous physical activity, because it could have potentially very profound effects on our health," Stamatakis said. "Our study confirms that this is the case even when it’s not exercise-based vigorous activity, even when it’s done as part of our daily activities — while working, while doing our errands, while we are commuting."
Loretta DiPietro, an exercise and nutrition sciences professor at George Washington University, said the new research is "the best evidence I’ve seen so far" that short bursts of movement have strong health benefits.
"For years, everybody assumed that the health benefits of physical activity required at least 10 minutes," she said. But now, "we are observing benefits at shorter and shorter durations."
But to be considered vigorous activity, according to Dr. John Schuna Jr., an associate kinesiology professor at Oregon State University, movement must elevate a person’s breathing and heart rate, and perhaps make them sweat (though perspiration may not occur after just one minute).
"Oftentimes, vigorous is at that level where you cannot hold a conversation," he said.
Previous research from the University of Sydney has also found that vigorous physical activity is associated with lower rates of heart disease. Another paper Stamatakis worked on suggested that 15 minutes of vigorous movement per week — whether from exercise or daily activity — was associated with a 16% lower risk of dying, while 20 minutes was associated with a 40% lower risk of dying from heart disease in particular.
A 2019 study also determined that stair climbing was associated with a lower risk of death among older men.
Current U.S. guidelines say adults need 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, such as brisk walking, riding a bike or playing tennis. The guidelines also suggest doing muscle strengthening on two or more days per week.
But Schuna said researchers often debate whether to lower that time recommendation. The new research represents "the types of studies that we need in order to make those jumps in the future," he said.
DiPietro emphasized that people need to be consistently active on a daily basis to see health benefits from short bursts of movement.
"You can’t just go climb a couple flights of stairs a day, and then wait a couple of days and do it again," she said.
But going to the gym isn't the only way to get beneficial movement, she added.
"There are just so many ways you can incorporate physical activity into a normal lifestyle," DiPietro said. "If you’re doing housework, put music on and do it to music. The body doesn’t care if you’re moving at the gym or inside your house vacuuming."