Climbing the stairs to your apartment, weaving between commuters as you rush to the train — these little snippets of exercise, if intense enough, can add up, according to a new study. The article is among the first to examine what many exercise scientists have long theorized: a little physical activity goes a long way, even movement you might not consider a workout.
The paper, published today in Nature Medicine, shows that tiny bursts of exercise throughout the day are associated with significant reductions in disease risk. The researchers used fitness tracker data collected by UK Biobank, a large medical database containing information about the health of people across the UK. They looked at the records of more than 25,000 people who did not exercise regularly, with an average age of around 60, and followed them for almost seven years. (People who walked recreationally once a week were included, but that was the maximum amount of concerted exercise these participants did.)
Those who engaged in exercise sessions of one or two minutes about three times a day, such as brisk walking on the way to work or briskly climbing stairs, showed an almost 50% reduction in the risk of cardiovascular mortality and a reduction of about 40% in risk. to die of cancer as well as all causes of death, compared to those who did not make vigorous fitness spurts.
The new research is part of a long tradition of research into fast-paced exercises, usually with traditional workouts, like running on a treadmill or using an elliptical trainer at the gym. Interval training, which means engaging in short bursts of increased power or speed during a longer workout, has long been popular in the sports world, said Jamie Burr, associate professor of human health and science nutritionists at the University of Guelph in Ontario who was not involved in the research.
A 2020 study linked four-minute bouts of exercise to longer life; another in 2019 found that climbing stairs for 20 seconds, several times a day, improved aerobic fitness. And still others have found that repeating intervals of intense activity of just four seconds can increase strength or counteract the metabolic balance of sitting for long periods of time.
“Intensity is very effective at building muscle and stressing the cardiovascular system,” said Ed Coyle, a professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas who has studied intense bouts of exercise. Quick, vigorous exercise, done repeatedly with short rest periods, can increase oxygen uptake and prevent the heart’s arteries from clogging, he said, as well as allowing the heart to pump more blood and function better overall.
The new study, however, shows that the average person doesn’t need to go out of their way to identify these small spikes in activity; daily movements, intensified, may suffice. And because they collected data from trackers participants wore on their wrists, rather than questionnaires, which some exercise studies rely on, the researchers were able to analyze the impact of minute movements.
“It really underscores how hugely beneficial little vigorous physical activity can be,” said Martin Gibala, professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario, who was one of the study’s authors.
Fitness researchers group exercise intensity into three categories, said Emmanuel Stamatakis, a professor at the Charles Perkins Center at the University of Sydney and lead author of the new study. If you can sing while doing the activity, it is light exercise. If you can’t sing, but can speak comfortably, it’s moderate. Dr. Stamatakis recommended movements so vigorous that you can only say a few words, if any, after about 30 seconds.
For those who exercise regularly, you can reap some of the benefits of short bursts by adding a sprint to your run or bike ride, Dr. Burr said. “Even a few fights in someone who is well trained can add a bit of spice,” he said.
Dr. Stamatakis also offered people a few ways to incorporate small periods of movement into their lives. If you have a walk of about half a mile — say, from your apartment to the grocery store — you don’t need to sprint all the time, he said, but pick up your pace for a few hundred of feet two or three times the course of your walk. Instead of taking the elevator, take the stairs. As long as you climb more than one or two flights, it will count as vigorous activity. Carrying about five percent of your body weight for a minute or two may also qualify, like carrying a large backpack, he added. And any type of short, brisk uphill walk can also provide a short burst of intense exercise.
“There is no need to plan throughout the day – you play with your children, you can engage with them more vigorously,” Dr Gibala said. “You get your groceries out of the car, you can pick up the pace. You can say: these are my activities of daily living, I can huff and puff a little while I do this.
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