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Short Bouts of Vigorous Activity May Reduce Mortality Risk

Small activities seem to make a big difference.

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In a study published in Nature Medicine, scientists have shown that short bouts of everyday vigorous physical activity, such as stair climbing, are associated with a considerable reduction in mortality risk, especially in cardiovascular mortality [1].

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Everyday activities and health

Exercise is one of the most effective anti-aging interventions available [2], but not everyone has the resources or the willpower to commit to a regular exercise regimen. However, regular exercise is not the only way to put the muscles and cardiovascular system to work. Most people engage in short bursts of activity from time to time, such as climbing a few flights of stairs, running after a bus, carrying heavy bags from the grocery store, and so on. No one had previously compared such everyday actions to health biomarkers, but a new study by an international team of scientists has changed that.

Data from wearable devices

The authors used data from wearable devices stored in UK Biobank, a huge repository of health information that has enabled dozens of scientific papers. Everyday exertions are known as vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity (VILPA), which wearable devices can detect. The researchers retrieved data on all-cause, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality for more than 25,000 people (mean age 62) who did not exercise regularly but wore wearables during the 7-year mean follow-up period.

The researchers used 65,000 regular exercisers as controls. This group had slightly higher educational attainment than non-exercisers, higher self-reported health (25.2% reporting being in excellent health versus 13.7% among the non-exercisers), and lower medication use.

Non-exercisers were defined as people who reported no leisure time exercise participation and no more than one recreational walk per week. For the sake of sensitivity analysis, the researchers also analyzed a subset of “perfect non-exercisers” who did not report even taking walks. While for most participants, the general level of physical activity (exerciser or non-exerciser) was only self-reported once, there was a 2000-strong subset of people who had two assessments separated by several years. This subset showed high retention of non-exerciser status; it did not change for 82% of respondents.

A bit of physical activity goes a long way

How much VILPA does the average couch potato accrue? First, virtually all VILPA bouts were no longer than two minutes, and the vast majority were no longer than one minute. The median total VILPA duration was four minutes per day, and the median frequency was three length-standardized bouts per day. At first glance, this is nothing to be proud about.

However, according to the study, this modest amount of activity went a long way in mitigating mortality risks. The effect was dose-dependent, but not perfectly linear, with the bulk of risk reduction associated with small VILPA amounts. Just 3 one-minute bouts of activity a day were associated with 39% less risk of all-cause mortality compared to no VILPA at all. 1.5 bouts a day resulted in 25% less risk, and the effect eventually plateaued at around 11 bouts a day (48% risk reduction).

The effect was much stronger for cardiovascular mortality, in which 1.5 bouts a day resulted in 33%, 3 bouts a day in 41%, and 11 bouts a day in a staggering 65% risk reduction. The analysis was adjusted for multiple covariates, including age, sex, physical activity, smoking, alcohol, sleep duration, fruit and vegetable consumption, education, medication use, and parental history of CVD and cancer. However, the list of covariates did not include BMI, an important factor for both health and physical activity.

Importantly, in terms of health impact, vigorous physical activity of all kinds in regular exercisers was not that dissimilar from VILPA in non-exercisers; according to the researchers, short bouts of vigorous everyday activity can recapitulate a lot of the reduction in mortality risk associated with regular vigorous exercise. The authors note that this is in line with several recent trials that showed improvements in cardiovascular fitness as a result of small amounts of vigorous physical activity [3].

Conclusion

While regular exercise is important, this study shows that even a small amount of vigorous physical activity is associated with a considerable reduction in mortality, especially cardiovascular mortality. When there is not enough everyday activity such as stair climbing, simple exercises like pushups and squats can be relatively easily incorporated into daily routines.

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Literature

[1] Stamatakis, E., Ahmadi, M. N., Gill, J. M., ThΓΈgersen-Ntoumani, C., Gibala, M. J., Doherty, A., & Hamer, M. (2022). Association of wearable device-measured vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity with mortality. Nature Medicine, 1-9.

[2] Duggal, N. A., Pollock, R. D., Lazarus, N. R., Harridge, S., & Lord, J. M. (2018). Major features of immunesenescence, including reduced thymic output, are ameliorated by high levels of physical activity in adulthood. Aging cell, 17(2), e12750.

[3] Allison, M. K., Baglole, J. H., Martin, B. J., MacInnis, M. J., Gurd, B. J., & Gibala, M. J. (2017). Brief intense stair climbing improves cardiorespiratory fitness. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 49(2), 298-307.

About the author
Arkadi Mazin

Arkadi Mazin

Arkadi is a seasoned journalist and op-ed author with a passion for learning and exploration. His interests span from politics to science and philosophy. Having studied economics and international relations, he is particularly interested in the social aspects of longevity and life extension. He strongly believes that life extension is an achievable and noble goal that has yet to take its rightful place on the very top of our civilization’s agenda – a situation he is eager to change.
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