Exercise and Longevity: Could It Be That Less Is More?
New research suggests that just two minutes per day of vigorous exercise may be enough to promote longevity. Photo: Caia Image/Getty Images
Longevity may be the most important trend we’ve ever experienced. It’s driven by — and in turn, it affects — everything from health to housing, money to technology, lifestyle to social policy. There’s so much to be aware of — and it’s just getting started! Now you can keep up with all the latest developments in this weekly column.
I don’t suppose we’ll ever arrive at a “final” conclusion about how much exercise, and what kind of exercise, is most needed to promote longevity. Except for the obvious fact that no exercise is bad and at least some exercise is good, there is no single formula that seems to be “it.” It may be because the topic is inherently unprovable (who is doing the exercise, how old are they to begin with, what are their underlying conditions) or because there is so much new research that keeps being conducted and reported.
Whatever the reason, it’s always interesting to check in and report on the latest wisdom. And in that spirit, I present a new study that suggests as little as two-minute bursts of activity — adding up to only 15 minutes a week — are associated with reduced risks of death.
The research, reported here, involved more than 70,000 adults who had no evidence of cardiovascular disease or cancer, selected from the U.K. Biobank study, whose participants were aged 40 to 69. The researchers analyzed associations between quantity and frequency of vigorous physical activity, and death (all-cause, cardio, cancer). They also looked at the incidence of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
They defined “moderate” activity as exercise that increases the heart rate but does not leave people out of breath. “Vigorous” activity does leave people out of breath: they have to pause for breath when speaking. Vigorous activity included sprinting, swimming or cycling at fast speeds. Participants were given wearable devices to monitor their activity.
The money quote, from the lead author of the study, Dr. Matthew Ahmadi, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sydney:
“We found as little as 15 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week can lower all-cause mortality and cancer risk by 15 per cent, and 20 minutes per week can lower heart disease risk by 40 per cent. With additional health benefits up to approximately 50 to 60 minutes per week.”
The findings have important implications, Ahmadi argues. “Any physical activity a person is doing provides an opportunity to do vigorous physical activity, if they can do the activity at a faster pace or higher intensity for just short periods of time.” This would make it easier to fit short duration bursts into everyday routines. “This may be particularly important for people who do not have the time or do not wish to go to a gym or engage in ‘traditional’ exercise,” he goes on to say.
The article also quotes Mike James, a physical therapist and sports scientist, who amplified that last point: “For those people who are already doing exercise, that is great and they should keep doing it. But for people who can not make it to a gym, they can also attain the health benefits of vigorous physical activity by doing their daily activities at a faster pace, even if it’s just for short periods of time. For example, gardening or doing household chores at a little higher intensity for short periods, or fast walking interspersed with comfortable walking pace when walking during the day.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should give up longer workouts that may be more vigorous. If you can do them and make them fit with your resources and your schedule, there’s no reason to stop. But it’s good to know that even a drastically scaled-down approach, as long as it includes these bursts of vigorous activity, can pay such huge dividends.
David Cravit is a Vice-President at ZoomerMedia, and Chief Membership Officer of CARP. He is also the author of two books on the “reinvention” of aging. You can check out some of his other writing here.