Woman vacuuming the floor and getting tired

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SYDNEY, Australia — Can you exercise without actually exercising? Incidental activity, like walking up and down the stairs, can contribute to a longer life. A new study of wearables tracking over 25,000 people provides the best evidence yet that short bouts of incidental activity, the kind we do as part of daily living, could reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and even premature death – but the length of activity and intensity matters.

“From walking up the stairs to speedily mopping the floors; 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 study senior author Emmanuel Stamatakis, a professor at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre, in a university release.

Scientists from the University of Sydney led a team of international researchers to answer that question.

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

In this group of people who self-reported not participating in exercise or sports, researchers found:

  • 97% of incidental physical activity was accrued in bouts lasting less than 10 minutes.
  • Short bouts of under 10 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 1 to 3 minutes was associated with significantly more benefit (29% lower) than very short bouts under 1 minute.
  • The longer the bouts, the better (e.g., accrued in 2 minutes vs. 30 seconds), regardless of total activity levels.
  • The higher the percentage of vigorous activity in each bout the better – those who huffed and puffed for at least 15 percent of the bout (roughly 10 seconds per minute) saw the greatest benefit.
  • Bouts under 1 minute were also associated with benefits if the above 15 percent vigorous activity rule was applied.
Person walking up stairs, steps for exercise
Running shoes (Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash)

“This study suggests 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 study lead author Dr. Matthew Ahmadi, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre. “In fact, it appears that this can have comparable health benefits to longer bouts lasting five to ten minutes.”

“The take-home message here is 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,” adds Stamatakis. “If you are huffing and puffing and unable to hold a conversation for some of that time you have hit the sweet spot.”

The observational nature of the study means researchers cannot prove a cause-and-effect relationship with certainty. However, researchers made extensive use of the UK Biobank’s baseline health information allowing them to account for a number of 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.

Why do we need to know more about incidental activity?

Fewer than one in five middle-aged adults engage in regular exercise, the study notes. There are a number of reasons for this including cost, time commitment, health status, and access to facilities or infrastructure, but the fact remains that 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,” explains Dr. Ahmadi. “But as we see in this data, the length and the vigor people put into these incidental activities matters.”

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 – 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.”

“If verified in future research, our findings could inform future public health messaging targeting the general population raising awareness of potential health benefits from short physical activity bouts in everyday life, especially for adults who do not or cannot exercise,” researchers write.

The study is published in the journal The Lancet Public Health.

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