Run up the stairs to your apartment or overtake passengers as you run towards the train. Those little bouts of exercise, if they’re intense enough, can be positive, according to a new study.
The paper is among the first to examine a hypothesis that many exercise scientists have long held: A little physical activity goes a long way, even movements you might not think of as a workout.
The work, published in Nature Medicine in December, shows that small bursts of exercise throughout the day are associated with significant reductions in disease risk.
The researchers used data from fitness trackers collected by the UK Biobank, a large medical database of health information from people across the UK. They analyzed the records of more than 25,000 individuals who did not exercise regularly, with an average age of around 60 years, and followed them for almost seven years. (People who walked recreationally once a week were included, but that was the maximum amount of combined exercise these participants did.)
Those who engaged in one- or two-minute exercise approximately three times a day, such as brisk walking while commuting to work or briskly climbing stairs, showed an almost 50% reduction in risk of cardiovascular mortality and approximately 40% of dying from cancer. , as well as all-cause mortality, compared with those who lacked bouts of vigorous fitness.
The new research is part of a long tradition of studying quick bursts of exercise, often done with traditional exercises like running on a treadmill or using an elliptical machine at the gym.
Interval training, which means exercising for short periods of higher power or speed during a longer workout, has long been popular in the athletic world, says Jamie Burr, associate professor of human health and nutritional sciences at the University of Guelph in Ontario. (Canada), who did not participate in the research.
A 2020 study linked four-minute “bursts” of exercise with longer life expectancy. Another in 2019 found that walking up stairs for 20 seconds several times a day improves aerobic fitness. And still others have found that repeating just four-second intervals of intense activity can increase strength or counteract the metabolic cost of sitting for long periods of time.
“Intensity is very effective at building muscle and stressing the cardiovascular system,” points out Ed Coyle, professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas, who has researched exercise sprints.
Quick bursts of vigorous exercise, done repeatedly with short periods of rest, can increase oxygen uptake and prevent heart arteries from clogging, he said, as well as force the heart to pump more blood and function better in general.
The new study, however, shows that the average person doesn’t have to struggle to spot these little spikes in activity. Daily movements, intensified, may be enough. And because they collected data from trackers that participants wore on their wrists, rather than the questionnaires that some exercise studies rely on, the researchers were able to analyze the impact of minimal movement.
“It really emphasizes that a little vigorous physical activity can be extremely beneficial,” says Martin Gibala, professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario, and author of the study.
Fitness researchers group exercise intensity into three categories, says Emmanuel Stamatakis, professor at the Charles Perkins Center at the University of Sydney (Australia) and lead author of the new study.
If you can sing while doing the activity, it’s a light workout. If you can’t sing but can speak comfortably, it’s moderate. Stamatakis recommended movements so vigorous that you can only speak a few words, or none at all, after 30 seconds or so.
For those who exercise regularly, you can reap some of the benefits of short sprints by adding a sprint to your run or ride, says Burr. “Even a few bursts in someone well trained can add a certain benefit,” he points out.
Stamatakis also shows some ways for people to incorporate short periods of movement into their lives.
If you walk about half a mile – for example, from your apartment to the supermarket – you don’t need to run all the way, he says, but pick up your pace for a few hundred meters two or three times during the walk. Instead of taking the elevator, take the stairs. As long as you go up more than one or two flights, it counts as vigorous activity. Carrying approximately 5% of your body weight for a minute or two can also qualify, as can carrying a large backpack, he adds. And any kind of brisk, brisk uphill walking can also provide a short bout of intense exercise.
“It doesn’t have to be planned throughout the day – you’re playing with your kids, you can engage with them more vigorously,” says Gibala. “When you bring groceries from the car, you can pick up a rhythm. You can say: these are my activities of daily living, I can get a little out of breath while I do them.”
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