People who hate the gym but still want to reap the many potential health rewards of high-intensity workouts may be in luck. A new study suggests that the type of activity bursts many of us get while going about our days — like running to catch a bus or racing up the stairs at work — can have significant longevity benefits.
In the study, people who engaged in just three surges of activity during the day, each lasting only a minute or two, were 38 to 40 percent less likely to die prematurely from all causes or from cancer in particular than individuals who didn’t have any bursts of vigorous activity in their days, according to study results published in Nature Medicine. These few infusions of activity each day also roughly halved the risk of an early death from heart disease.
What’s remarkable in this study is that all of the physical activity occurred as people went about their daily lives, not as part of a planned workout in the gym. The results suggest that lots of things people do without intentionally planning to exercise — like chasing their dog or hauling groceries home from the store — could make a big difference in longevity.
“Individuals who find structured exercise unappealing or infeasible may consider exploring opportunities to introduce brief but regular bouts of vigorous physical activity into their daily routines,” the study team wrote in Nature Medicine.
The study’s authors believe it’s the first large-scale analysis of the relationship between spurts of nonexercise physical activity and longevity.
Even Quick Nonexercise Activities May Yield Big Longevity Benefits
For the study, researchers examined records on more than 25,000 adults who participated in the ongoing U.K. Biobank study. Participants were 62 years old on average and didn’t do any exercise more vigorous than a leisurely walk once a week. All of them wore fitness trackers so researchers could look at the frequency and intensity of any physical activity they got as they went about their normal routines.
Data from these trackers showed that nearly all the bursts of activity people got were really short: About 92 percent of these quick surges of exertion lasted up to one minute, and roughly 98 percent of these bouts lasted up to two minutes.
After an average follow-up period of about seven years, a total of 852 people died, including 266 fatalities from heart disease and 511 from cancer.
One limitation of the study is that it’s possible participants’ exercise habits changed over time, and researchers only assessed this once at the start. It’s also possible that people who chose to participate in the U.K. Biobank study, which collects vast amounts of medical data and lab test results, might not be representative of the majority of people who might lead sedentary lifestyles who could benefit most from incorporating a few more bursts of activity into their routines.
Research Is Growing on the Benefits of Brief Bursts of High-Intensity Exercise
Even with its limitations, the new study adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that there can be great health benefits from brief bursts of exercise — particularly in the context of traditional workouts and gym routines. Much of the research in this area focuses on planned workouts known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) that strive to get the heart pumping through periods of vigorous activity interspersed with brief rest periods.
For example, one 2020 study found four-minute bursts of intense exercise associated with increased longevity, according to The New York Times. Similarly, another study, published in 2021 in Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise, found just 15 minutes of interval cycling three times a week — with intense effort lasting only four seconds — increased strength. And a separate study, published in 2019 in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, found dashing up stairs a few times a day, for just 20 seconds each go-round, associated with better aerobic fitness.
Recognizing the potential benefits of even short spurts of exertion, the most recent physical activity guidelines (PDF) from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services removed previous recommendations that adults get all of their exercise in bouts lasting at least 10 minutes.
“Adults should move more and sit less throughout the day,” the latest guidelines stress. “Some physical activity is better than none. Adults who sit less and do any amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity gain some health benefits.”