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Short bursts of vigorous activity can cut risk of early death, study suggests

People who do three one-minute bouts of intense activity each day such as climbing stairs have 39% lower risk of death from any cause

Whether it is playing with the dog or attacking the housework, clocking up just a few minutes of vigorous activity in daily life could dramatically reduce the chance of early death, research suggests.

The study found middle-aged adults who do not undertake leisure exercise such as going to the gym but who manage to rack up three very short bouts of vigorous activity a day have about a 39% lower risk of death than those who do no vigorous activity.

Mark Hamer, a professor of sport and exercise medicine at University College London and a co-author of the study, said the findings highlighted the importance of incidental exercise.

“This could be things like playing with children. It could be [that] you see your bus just about to leave so you have to walk extremely quickly to get the bus. It may be that you live in a block of flats and you have to carry that shopping up a flight of stairs,” he said. “It’s those sorts of little bursts that would happen in everyday life.”

Writing in the journal Nature Medicine, Hamer and colleagues report how they analysed data from the UK BioBank – a research endeavour that has collated genetic, lifestyle and health information from more than 500,000 people since it began in 2006.

The team focused on more than 25,000 participants, with a mean age of 61.8 years, who reported that they did not undertake exercise in their leisure time, bar up to one recreational walk a week. As part of the BioBank study these participants also wore an activity tracker on their wrist for a seven-day period.

The team found almost 89% of the participants undertook short bouts of vigorous activity, the vast majority of which lasted just one or two minutes.

The researchers tracked the health outcomes of participants for an average of 6.9 years, finding that 852 died, including 511 cancer deaths and 266 deaths from cardiovascular disease.

After taking into account factors such as smoking status, age, sex, and medications, the team found those who undertook just three one-minute bouts of vigorous activity each day had a 39% lower risk of death from any cause in the follow-up period than those who did no such activity, while 11 one-minute bouts a day was linked to a 48% lower risk of death.

The impact was even more pronounced for cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Participants who managed three one-minute bouts of vigorous activity each day had a 49% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and a 30% lower risk of death from cancer, compared with those who did no such activity, while 11 one-minute bouts a day was linked to a 65% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and a 49% lower risk of death from cancer.

The team noted the results held even when they excluded participants who had health problems at the start of the study.

“It’s a large effective study,” said Hamon, adding that the results were similar when the team looked at bouts of any vigorous activity in 62,000 additional BioBank participants who did undertake exercise in their leisure time.

Adults are currently recommended to undertake 150 minutes of moderate to brisk exercise – or 75 mins of intense activity – a week. However, updated guidelines released by the UK’s chief medical officers in 2019 suggested even very short bursts of exertion could count towards these goals.

“The message anything counts is a really good one,” said Hamer. “I think most people can probably try to be more active in just everyday life and it doesn’t mean you have to take out a gym membership.”

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