Simply climbing a single set of stairs, walking around the block or taking a three-minute jog can improve a middle-aged person’s health, even when such activity is spread across the day, new research suggests.
After tracking the activity habits and health of more than 4,800 adults 40 years old and up for four years, researchers concluded that short bursts of activity add up — and ultimately reap big health dividends.
The finding runs counter to federal guidelines that say activity must last at least 10 minutes in order to help stave off disease and premature death.
“This [federal] guideline suggested if it’s less than 10 minutes, it doesn’t count for health benefits,” said study author Dr. William Kraus. “Yet, we were telling people to do all these things to improve their health — taking the stairs, parking farther away from work entrance and walking in, walking into the store to get your coffee — all of which take much less than 10 minutes to accomplish.”
Kraus is a cardiologist and professor at the Duke Molecular Physiology Institute in Durham, N.C.
After looking at the impact of activities lasting as short as a minute, Kraus and his team found it all pays off as long as the intensity reaches a moderate or vigorous level.
“When you can get at least 30 minutes most days of the week, you’re going to see a reduced risk of death,” Kraus said. That’s good news, he added, because getting in your minutes little by little may be easier than finding time for one half-hour workout.
Since 2008, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has recommended Americans get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise every week, preferably over several days.
For their study, Kraus and his colleagues defined moderate activity as walking at a brisk pace that makes it hard to carry on a conversation. Ramping up to a jog would represent vigorous activity for most people.
The investigators looked at the experience of 4,840 adults who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 2003 and 2006. All participants wore tracking devices to keep tabs on their activity.
Those who were active every day — even for less than 10 minutes at a pop — helped stave off potentially deadly conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
“We want to state it clearly and simply,” Kraus said. “All moderate and vigorous activity can count toward reducing your risk of death, even if it’s broken up into short sessions.”
Not surprisingly, the research team also found that more is better, especially for those who finally decide to get moving after leading mostly sedentary lives.
“The more you do, the more you will decrease your risk and see health benefits,” Kraus said.
Those who got less than 20 minutes of moderate or vigorous activity each day had the highest risk of early death, the study found.
Participants who racked up 60 minutes of daily activity cut that risk by 57 percent. Those who clocked 100 minutes or more shaved 76 percent off their risk of death from chronic illness, according to the study.
The findings were published online March 22 in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
Dr. Gregg Fonarow is director of the Ahmanson-UCLA Cardiomyopathy Center. He wasn’t connected to the study.
“These findings suggest that it is the total physical activity that is accumulated that matters, aiming for 150 minutes a week total, whether divided up into short duration more frequently or longer bouts of exercise,” Fonarow said.
To achieve that goal, he suggested embracing the kind of technology used in the study to monitor activity.
“Activity trackers may help individuals interested in improving their health by providing feedback on daily and weekly total minutes spent with moderate to vigorous physical activity,” Fonarow said.
Learn more about current activity recommendations at U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.