Multiple one to two minute bursts of vigorous activity - such as climbing flights of stairs or running for a bus - each day can reduce the risk of premature death, a new study shows.
In good news for those who hate the gym, the new study finds that just three to four one minute spurts of huffing and puffing as you go about your day may reduce your risk of dying early by as much as 40%, Australian researchers reported Thursday in Nature Medicine.
"Especially for people who do not do regular leisure time vigorous exercise, short but regular bursts of vigorous intensity physical activity as part of day to day activities may be as beneficial as leisure time exercise," said the study's lead author, Emmanuel Stamatakis, a professor of physical activity, lifestyle, and population health at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney.
That doesn't mean gym goers should give up their workouts, Stamatakis said in an email.
"All physical activity counts, no matter how short it is," he added. "The higher the intensity and the more regular the bursts are, the better. People who already have an established and regular routine of vigorous, leisure time exercise should stick to it and treat VILPA (vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity) as supplementary to their regular routine, not as a replacement."
Many kinds of activities would qualify as VILPA, including stair climbing, brisk uphill walking, carrying shopping bags, playing vigorously with kids or pets and intense gardening or housework, Stamatakis said. "As long as the heart rate goes up for a minute or two it will likely be a vigorous activity," he added.
The study itself doesn't explain how these short bursts of activity help people live longer.
"However, it is plausible to speculate that VILPA, when repeated regularly, leads to improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness over time, Stamatakis said. "Cardiorespiratory fitness is an important causal determinant of cardiovascular disease - that is, people with low fitness are more likely to experience cardiovascular disease."
Earlier research showed that intermittent bouts of vigorous exercise can improve aerobic fitness even in previously inactive people, Stamatakis said.
To take a closer look at how VILPA impacts longevity, Stamatakis and his colleagues turned to data from participants in the UK Biobank, a large-scale biomedical database. The researchers focused on 25,241 participants, average age 62, who agreed to wear an activity tracker on their wrists and reported that they did not do sports or exercise during leisure time.
When the researchers analyzed the participants' activity data, they found that across 6.9 years of follow-up, participants who engaged in one or two minutes of VILPA three times a day had a 38% to 40% reduction in their risk of dying from any cause and a 48% to 49% reduction in their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
The new study's findings "are very encouraging," said Dr. I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School and an epidemiologist and physical activity researcher at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "Just living your regular life but doing a little more at your 'inconvenience,' such as walking up stairs rather than waiting for the elevator can be helpful. You can think of these bursts of activity as little exercise snacks."
How do you know if what you're doing is vigorous enough?
"Walking up stairs at a regular rate is already intense," Lee said. "Basically you're doing the activity at a high enough level that you cannot sing and cannot easily carry on a conversation. It's not a really high level, just enough that you can't talk easily."
For those who are inactive, "this would be a good place to start," said Dr. Johanna Contreras, director of the Mount Sinai Heart Failure Network and an associate professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. "You can incorporate a little bit of vigorous activity into your daily life and then go on from there."
"While it's important to keep yourself active, it doesn't have to be 45 minutes a day," Contreras said. "If you don't have time to go the gym, you can be active in other ways. I take the stairs up and down in the hospital. I walk to the train. And sometimes I get off at an earlier stop. It's important to mix activity in with your life."
This article was originally published on TODAY.com