One-minute bursts of activity during daily tasks could prolong your life, study finds

A man in a suit with his arm upraised, running toward a bus.

New research shows the benefits of brief bouts of vigorous physical activity that is part of daily living — like running for the bus or power walking on errands. (Shutterstock Image)

Just three to four one-minute bursts of activity during daily tasks is associated with large reductions in the risk of premature death, particularly from cardiovascular disease.

The study, published in Nature Medicine today, is the first to accurately measure the health benefits of what researchers have termed “vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity” or VILPA, and is good news for those who don’t play sports or work out.

VILPA is the very short bouts of vigorous activity — up to one to two minutes — that we do with gusto each day, such as running for the bus, bursts of power walking while doing errands or playing high-energy games with the kids.

The study is led by the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre in Australia and involved an international team of scientists, which included McMaster University’s Martin Gibala, a professor in the department of Kinesiology and a leading researcher on the benefits of high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

“In contrast to exercise that is planned and structured, VILPA refers to brief periods of physical activity that is undertaken as part of daily living,” says Gibala, a co-author on the study who helped to develop the VILPA research framework.

“VILPA could have substantial health benefits, particularly for people who are unable or unwilling to engage in structured exercise during leisure time.”

The team found that just three to four one-minute bouts of VILPA every day is associated with up to 40 per cent reduction in all-cause and cancer-related mortality, and up to a 49 per cent reduction in death related to cardiovascular disease.

“Our study shows similar benefits to high-intensity interval training can be achieved through increasing the intensity of incidental activities done as part of daily living, and the more the better,” said lead author Emmanuel Stamatakis, Professor of Physical Activity, Lifestyle and Population Health at the University of Sydney.

“A few very short bouts totalling three to four minutes a day could go a long way, and there are many daily activities that can be tweaked to raise your heart rate for a minute or so.”

The majority of adults aged 40 and over do not take part in regular exercise or sport.

What the researchers discovered about exercise as part of daily life

  • About 89 per cent of all participants did some VILPA.
  • Among those who did VILPA:
    • 93 per cent of all VILPA bouts last up to 1 minute.
    • On average, each day participants did eight VILPA bouts of up to 1 minute each, totalling 6 minutes a day.
    • On average, each VILPA bout lasted around 45 seconds.
  • The steepest gains were seen when comparing those with around four to five bouts per day to those with no VILPA.
  • However, larger benefits were found with larger VILPA amounts, suggesting the more the better.
  • The maximum of 11 bouts per day was associated with a 65 per cent reduction in cardiovascular death risk and 49 per cent reduction in cancer-related death risk, compared to no VILPA.

A comparative analysis of the vigorous activity of 62,000 people who regularly engaged in exercise found comparable results. This implies that whether the vigorous activity is done as part of structured exercise or housework, it does not compromise the health benefits.

Researchers used wrist-worn tracker data from UK Biobank, a large-scale biomedical database, to measure the activity of over 25,000 “non-exercisers”, participants who self-reported that they do not do any sports or exercise during leisure time.

By this method, the researchers could conclude that any activity recorded by this group was incidental physical activity done as part of everyday living.

The team then accessed health data that allowed them to follow participants over seven years.

The studies are observational, meaning they cannot directly establish cause and effect. However, the researchers took rigorous statistical measures to minimize the possibility that results are explained by differences in health status between participants.

The team, which also included the University of Oxford, University College London, University of Glasgow and the University of Southern Denmark, is calling for physical activity guidelines and clinical advice to be updated to keep pace with this evolving area.

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