Regular vigorous exercise is one of the best ways to improve your health and longevity, but most people don’t get enough. In the U.S., less than a quarter of adults meet the federal physical activity guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity. However, new research suggests that doing three one-minute bursts of intense physical activity every day can reduce your risk of death. One easy way to do this? Pick up the pace at activities you do every day—like walking, climbing the stairs, or doing chores.
In the study, published Dec. 8 in Nature Medicine, researchers from the University of Sydney in Australia used a data set from the U.K. to analyze everyday physical activity of more than 25,000 adults who reported that they didn’t exercise. In the data set, the participants wore activity monitors on their wrists for seven days, and their health events and outcomes were then tracked for an average of about seven years. The researchers found that people who had gotten just one to two minutes of vigorous physical activity from everyday activities—not dedicated exercise—about three or four times a day during the week they wore an activity monitor had a 38% to 40% lower risk of dying during the study period, compared to people who got no such vigorous physical activity. This held true for death by any cause, including cancer. Getting this small amount of intense physical activity was linked to an even greater risk reduction of dying from cardiovascular disease: about 48%.
This suggests that stepping up everyday activities in a vigorous way—using so much energy that you can’t speak comfortably—can have major health benefits, says Emmanuel Stamatakis, a professor of physical activity and population health at the University of Sydney and lead author of the study. Globally, he says, there seems to be a limit to the number of people who can be persuaded to exercise regularly, but these data suggest there are easier ways to improve health.
“We’re shifting the discussion to everyday living—to activities people do anyway,” says Stamatakis. “Only a small minority in the population do regular leisure time exercise. We need to come up with more options for these people to gain some benefits from physical activity.”
The researchers also found that even people who exercised appeared to benefit from these short bursts of activity. When the researchers looked at the data for more than 62,000 people who got at least some exercise, getting short bursts of intense physical activity benefited them about as much as it benefited the non-exercisers. Stamatakis says that in this study, the researchers didn’t separately examine data for the fittest people, but he suspects that anyone could benefit from short bursts, given that vigorous physical activity seems to be so beneficial.
While this study is observational, it accords with other research that has shown that even short periods of vigorous physical activity can improve health, including research on high-intensity interval training. Stamatakis points to one small study published in 2017 showing that doing three 60-second bursts of vigorous exercise three times a week improved cardiovascular function within a few weeks.
Stamatakis says that he hopes that research like his will persuade experts writing physical activity guidelines in the future to consider encouraging people to think about how they can build vigorous physical activity into their daily routines. Parking further away from your destination, then walking quickly for a few minutes, is one way to squeeze in a short burst of vigorous activity, he says; another is to take the stairs or garden vigorously. Since doing this research, Stamatakis says he’s been more conscientious about how often he gets vigorous exercise during the day, including by walking fast for a few minutes. “I’ve given up elevators altogether,” he says.