To live longer, pick up the pace just three minutes a day, study shows
A study finds that just three minutes a day of vigorous daily activity is associated with a 40 percent lower risk of premature death in adults, even when they don’t normally exercise at all.
“It’s fantastic” research, said Ulrik Wisloff, director of the KG Jebsen Center for Exercise Medicine at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. He has studied activity and longevity extensively, but was not involved in the new study.
The study’s results join a growing body of scientific evidence that adding a little intensity to our lives has big health benefits, without the need for extra equipment, instruction, gym memberships or time.
The idea that the way we move affects the length of our lives is not new. Many studies link regular exercise with longer life expectancy, including official public health exercise guidelineswho recommend at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise for health and longevity.
More focused research, however, suggests that intensifying some exercise—getting your heart rate and breathing faster—enhances health benefits. In the great 2006 study from Wisloff’s lab, for example, just 30 minutes a week of vigorous exercise cut the risk of death from heart disease by about half in men and women, compared to sedentary people. Similarly, a study published last year in JAMA Internal Medicine concluded that people who exercised intermittently during exercise were about 17 percent less likely to die prematurely than other people who exercised the same amount but at a lighter, moderate pace.
However, both of these studies, as well as similar past research, were based on people’s subjective recollection of how much and how intensely they exercised. They were also exercise studies, which makes them inherently interesting mostly to people who exercise or would like to, which is not the bulk of humanity.
“To be honest, most people are allergic to the word ‘exercise,'” said Emmanuel Stamatakis, a professor of physical activity and health studies at the University of Sydney in Australia, who led the new study.
The health benefits of busy responsibilities and chasing after small children
Acknowledging that point of view, he and his colleagues have recently begun to wonder about the effects of non-exercise activities—those frequent tasks and movements that make up so much of our days but aren’t exercise. Would it be important for people’s health if these activities were performed faster, stronger, with a little more energy?
To find out, the researchers turned to extensive data stored in the UK Biobank, which includes health records for hundreds of thousands of British men and women, most of whom wore accelerometers for a week after joining the Biobank to track their daily movements. The scientists pulled the records for 25,241 of those adults, ages 40 to 69, all of whom told the researchers they never exercised.
The scientists then began to analyze their daily activities in minute detail, determining the intensity of their movements almost second by second, based on step speed and other data. Stamatakis said the analysis took three months of constant computer work.
But eventually the researchers were able to map the participants’ short bursts of movement, like someone running after a train or chasing a toddler. These physical attacks can only last for a minute.
But they were important for mortality. By comparing activity patterns with death records for a period of about seven years after people joined the Biobank, the researchers found that those men and women who averaged 4.4 minutes of physical activity per day, which the scientists called a vigorous intermittent lifestyle, had were about 30 percent less likely to have died than those who rarely moved quickly in any way.
Just move with gusto a few times a day
The spread of these short bursts of activity increased the benefits. When people managed at least three separate bursts of movement throughout the day, each lasting just one minute, their risk of death dropped by 40 percent, compared to people who never rushed. They didn’t practice. They just picked up the pace of something they were doing, at least three times a day.
Finally, the researchers performed a similar analysis of data for 62,344 men and women in the Biobank who exercised, albeit mostly at a moderate pace. When these people managed a few minutes of more intense activity most days, either during exercise or doing daily chores, their mortality risk was lower than if they exercised, but almost never hard.
“There’s something about the intensity,” Stamatakis said.
To amp up your own activities, Stamatakis continued, move hard and fast enough to make conversation seem impossible. Try to reach that breathless level three or four times a day, for a minute or two at a time, preferably while doing something you need to do anyway.
However, this study has limitations. It’s associational, showing only the relationship between rapid exertion and our lifespan, and doesn’t tell us why intensity counts, even though other research shows that vigorous exercise improves endurance and cardiovascular health more than light exercise, Stamatakis said.
The conclusion of the study is that rushing through housework now could buy us years of time later.
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