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Daily intense activity can include taking the stairs, speedwalking or lugging heavy bags of groceries. Cavan Images/Getty Images
  • A new study finds a few minutes of vigorous activity on a daily basis can help lower your cancer risk.
  • This type of vigorous activity can include taking the stairs, speedwalking or bringing in heavy bags of groceries.
  • Around four minutes of physical activity a day was associated with a 32% drop in cancer risk.

While a great workout is good for the body and mind, new research is showing that you don’t have to commit to a full gym session in order to reap rewards.

A new study finds that a few minutes of vigorous activity every day such as taking the stairs or speed walking can reduce the risk of certain cancers.

The study, published in JAMA Oncology, was an observational study that determined that four to five minutes a day of “vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity” is associated with lower cancer risk compared to those who do not do this kind of activity.

Vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity, or VILPA, was defined as bursts between one and two minutes.

“We have known that physical activity can regulate some hormones related to cancer development and help keep the immune system healthy,” said Dr. Marleen I. Meyers, medical oncologist and director of the NYU Langone Perlmutter Cancer Center Survivorship Program. “This paper confirms the importance of exercise and makes an attempt to define the amount of exercise required for risk reduction of some cancers. This is very important as it is difficult to get non-exercisers or inactive people to commit to sustained physical activity and supports the recommendation to exercise and be active even in short intense periods.”

The study tracked more than 22,000 people with an average age of 62 who were self-reported non-exercisers. Each wore wearable devices to track daily data and their health was monitored for cancer over the course of seven years. More than 92% of the VILPA in this group was accrued in bouts of up to one minute, while more than 96% of all bouts lasted up to two minutes.

The researchers found that a minimum of 3.4 to 3.6 minutes of vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity per day was associated with a 17 to 18% reduction in total incident cancer risk. Additionally, a median daily amount of 4.5 minutes was associated with a 31 to 32% reduction in physical activity–related cancer incidence.

“While the recommendations in general health still suggest finding time for routine exercise, the results of this study serve as an important message for those that do not find time to regularly exercise, suggesting that even short bursts of vigorous activity can be beneficial for lowering cancer risk,” said Dr. Louis Potters, the chair of radiation medicine at Northwell Lenox Hill Hospital. “Even activity for as short as a minute has a positive impact.”

Short bursts of vigorous activity could include activities like housework, walking uphill, carrying heavy groceries, power walking, or playing high-energy games with kids or friends.

“The risk of cancer is multi-factorial ranging from genetics to exercise, nutrition, alcohol, smoking, and sun exposure. Any improvement in lifestyle potentially decreases cancer risk, so small steps in each category can be very helpful,” said Meyers. “We know exercise is good for many things – not only cancer risk reduction but also cardiovascular health and mobility.”

While the results can be motivating for people who find it difficult to stick to a regular exercise routine, this does not mean that four to five minutes of exercise is all a person needs to stay healthy.

“While this paper is aimed at cancer risk reduction, this may not be the optimal regimen for cardiovascular health,” said Meyers. “I recommend 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75-100 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise each week. This article supports that even small high-intensity workouts are beneficial and exercise should be incorporated into every person’s lifestyle. It is never too late to start.”

Short bursts of physical activity can include anything from power walking instead of public transportation, taking the stairs over the elevator, or making multiple trips out to the car to bring in the groceries. It does not have to be as big of a time commitment as a daily spin class or CrossFit.

“The message, therefore, is that given an opportunity to walk a flight of stairs or to walk quickly for short periods during the day, one should avail themselves to do so as a means of lowering their cancer risk,” said Potters.

A new study finds about four minutes of daily physical activity can lower your cancer risk by as much as 32%.