It’s not uncommon for exercisers to focus on the caloric cost of a given workout, especially if weight loss is a goal, but a new study suggests that the activity people do every day—from taking the stairs at work to raking up leaves in the yard—offer a wide range of health benefits. In fact, the benefits of incidental activity are pretty significant, like reduced risk of heart disease, stroke and all-cause mortality.

The study, conducted by an international team of researchers and published in The Lancet Public Health, involved analyzing data gleaned from wrist-worn wearables that tracked the activity of more than 25,000 people. According to the researchers, this study is the first to investigate the cardiovascular health benefits of short bouts of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity as part of daily life, particularly for individuals who don’t engage in regular exercise.

“In recent years we’ve come to understand that it is not just structured exercise that is good for our health, but we know very little about how these short bouts of incidental activity translate to health benefits,” says the study’s senior author Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre. Specifically, they wanted to know how much lifestyle physical activity and at what intensity was needed to reap those health benefits.

The Study

Researchers used wrist-worn wearables data from the United Kingdom Biobank and machine learning to analyze the seven-day incidental physical-activity patterns of 25,241 UK adults aged 42 to 78, down to a 10-second time window. These physical-activity micropatterns were then linked with participants’ health records, following them for close to eight years to identify how length and intensity of physical-activity bouts were linked to health status.

The findings indicate that short bursts of physical activity, lasting from one to less than five minutes, are just as beneficial (with a 29 to 44% reduction in mortality and major adverse cardiovascular events, or MACE) as longer bouts of five to less than 10 minutes, when compared to periods of less than one minute.

While the results suggest that accumulating physical activity in bouts of less than one minute can be beneficial for overall survival, for a lower risk of MACE, at least 15% of these short bouts should consist of vigorous intensity activity. The more vigorous the intensity of these short bouts, the stronger the associations with cardiovascular health.

It is important to note that the observational nature of the study means researchers cannot prove a cause-and-effect relationship with certainty. However, the researchers made extensive use of the UK Biobank’s baseline health information, allowing them to account for numerous factors such as diet, smoking, alcohol consumption, sleep and sedentary time. They also took precautionary measures against the potential effects of reverse causation, whereby poor health may influence activity patterns, by excluding those who had a cardiac event within five years of the wearables' measurement, high frailty and poor self-rated health.

By the Numbers

Here’s a breakdown of what the researchers of this study found among participants who reported no exercise or sports participation:

  • Ninety-seven percent of subjects’ incidental physical activity was accrued in bouts lasting less than 10 minutes.
  • Short bouts of less than10 minutes at a moderate-to-vigorous intensity were associated with a steep decrease in major cardiac events (heart attack/stroke) and death by any cause.
  • Moving consistently for at least one to three minutes was associated with significantly greater benefit (29% lower) than moving for very short bouts of less than one minute.
  • The longer the bouts the participants completed, the better (for example, two minutes was more beneficial than 30 seconds), regardless of total activity levels.
  • A higher percentage of vigorous activity in each bout was more beneficial; those who exercised vigorously for at least 15% of the bout (roughly 10 seconds per minute) saw the greatest benefit.
  • Bouts that lasted less than a minute also offered benefits, as long as at least 15% of the activity was vigorous.

What the Research Means to Health and Exercise Professionals

When asked why they don’t exercise regularly, people consistently point to a lack of time as their primary obstacle. This isn’t surprising, of course, as even the most dedicated exercisers can find themselves with overloaded calendars and never-ending lists of obligations. Unfortunately, fewer than one in five middle-aged adults engage in regular exercise, and most people are not meeting recommended physical-activity guidelines.

“The idea of accruing short bouts of moderate to vigorous activity through daily living activities makes physical activity much more accessible to people who are unwilling or unable to take part in structured exercise,” says lead author Dr. Matthew Ahmadi, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre. “But as we see in this data, the length and the vigor people put into these incidental activities matters.”

Activities such as mopping and vacuuming, washing the car, gardening and shoveling snow can all be considered moderate to vigorous, depending on how much effort is put into each task. How can your clients know if they are moving vigorously enough to achieve the greatest benefit? “If you are huffing and puffing and unable to hold a conversation for some of that time, you have hit the sweet spot,” he says.

For individuals who cannot or do not engage in structured exercise, incorporating short bursts of daily living activities, even as brief as one to five minutes, can contribute to better cardiovascular outcomes. The study also highlights the potential benefits of both leisure time exercise and daily living activities in promoting cardiovascular health, suggesting that short bouts of activity during daily life can offer similar benefits as sustained exercise sessions. In fact, even a few seconds of vigorous activity interspersed with moderate-intensity activity can be beneficial.

“This study suggests that people could potentially reduce their risk of major cardiac events by engaging in daily living activities of at least moderate intensity where they are ideally moving continuously for at least one to three minutes at a time,” says Dr. Ahmadi. “In fact, it appears that this can have comparable health benefits to longer bouts lasting 5 to 10 minutes.” This is a message that the researchers hope may inform future public health messaging targeting the general population that raises awareness of the potential health benefits from short physical-activity bouts in everyday life, especially for adults who do not or cannot exercise.”

The researchers say the study also provides some of the first direct evidence to support the idea that movement doesn’t have to be completed in continuous 10-minute bouts to be beneficial, which was a widely held belief until the World Health Organization removed this from their physical-activity guidelines in 2020, instead focusing on the idea that “every move counts towards better health.” 

The take-home message, says Dr. Stamatakis, is that “any type of activity is good for your health, but the more effort you put into those daily tasks and the longer you keep up that energy, the more benefits you are likely to reap.”