A woman is seen exercising on outdoor stairs.Share on Pinterest
Small bursts of physical activity can help you stay healthy and decrease mortality risk. ljubaphoto/Getty Images
  • A new study found that people may be able to lower their risk of major cardiovascular events through sporadic bursts of movement.
  • The benefits linked to a few minutes of activity were comparable to those from physical activity lasting five to 10 minutes.
  • Participants used wrist-worn wearables that tracked their daily activity patterns down to a 10-second time window.

New research shows that small bouts of physical activity spread throughout the day could reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and premature death.

The study, recently published in The Lancet Public Health, found that people may be able to lower their risk of major cardiovascular events through sporadic bursts of movement — lasting just one to three minutes — even if they don’t typically exercise.

The health benefits linked to a few minutes of movements was comparable to those conferred from physical activity lasting five to 10 minutes.

Many adults don’t get the recommend amount of daily exercise, likely due to the cost and time commitment required, however, this study shows that simply moving more through daily living activities may protect the heart.

“These findings are promising to public health, as it might be easier for people to incorporate shorter periods of physical activity as a daily habit than a longer structured exercise routine,” Dr. Cheng-Han Chen, board certified interventional cardiologist and medical director of the Structural Heart Program at MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center in Laguna Hills, CA, told Healthline. Chen was not involved in the study.

To investigate how bursts of activity impacts health, the researchers recruited 25,241 adults in the United Kingdom, The average age of participants was about 62 years old.

The participants used wrist-worn wearables that tracked their daily physical activity patterns, down to a 10-second time window.

The researchers then linked the participants’ physical activity patterns to their health records, and tracked them for roughly 8 years.

The team found that 97% of people’s incidental physical activity lasted less than 10 minutes.

Bouts of moderate to vigorous activity that lasted less than 10 minutes were linked to a significant reduction in heart attack, stroke, and death by any cause.

Longer bursts of non-exercise activity were associated with more health benefits — regardless of how much cumulative activity a person did. For example, moving for 1 to 3 minutes was associated with greater health benefits than moving for less than a minute.

In addition, the more vigorous activity a person achieves, the greater the benefit. One co-author described vigorous activity as “huffing and puffing” for at least 15% of the activity in a statement.

Even short bursts of activity that lasted less than a minute were beneficial if vigorous.

“The results of this study are not surprising and are consistent with multiple prior studies showing the benefits of even small amounts of physical activity,” said Dr. Alexandra Lajoie, board certified noninvasive cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. Lajoie was not involved in the study.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that people aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week. However, most people don’t meet these guidelines.

In fact, less than 25% of adults between the ages of 18 and 64 meet these guidelines. This could be due to:

  • cost
  • time commitment
  • health status
  • limited access to facilities

A 2022 study similarly found that four short bouts of activity, up to about 2 minutes on average, can substantially lower one’s risk of cardiovascular disease.

Another 2022 report found that three daily bouts of one to two-minute bursts of activity were linked to a 38%–40% reduction in all-cause and cancer mortality risk and a 48%–49% reduction in cardiovascular disease mortality risk.

That said, people with the least amount of activity are also more likely to have health problems than those with more regular activity, Lajoie added.

“It is not necessarily a 100% cause-and-effect situation,” she said. “I often tell my patients that if they do not have time for a dedicated exercise regimen, that they should try to fit in any activity that they can find time for,” said Lajoie.

A sedentary lifestyle has been associated with a higher risk of serious health conditions including:

  • cardiovascular disease
  • cancer
  • premature death

Physical inactivity is ranked as a leading risk factor for heart disease.

“When we exercise, our organs and tissue undergo changes that improve their performance and efficiency,” said Chen.

Exercise combats hypertension, or high blood pressure, which helps improve:

  • lipid metabolism
  • endothelial tissue function
  • blood viscosity

Physical activity can also promote cardiomyocyte proliferation, or cell regrowth, in people with adverse cardiac changes.

“Even brief periods of activity can influence the mechanisms by which these changes improve our body function,” said Chen.

Dr. Michael McConnell, a clinical professor of cardiovascular medicine at Stanford Medicine, noted that the small bouts studied are moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, which means they were intense enough to increase a person’s heart rate. McConnell was not involved in the study

“Broadly, this entails increased blood flow through our vessels, which makes them less prone to plaque buildup,” said McConnell.

Chen recommended a few ways to incorporate short bursts of exercise into your day:

  • take the stairs instead of the elevator
  • take a short stroll around your office
  • park further away from the store
  • walk more briskly when shopping

McConnell said other options include playing with pets or children, taking public transportation to work, and walking during a Zoom meeting.

“A few minutes here and there during routine activities throughout the day can add up to real benefit in heart health and longevity,” McConnell said.

If verified in future studies, the researchers hope their findings could help inform public health guidance and motivate adults to move more.

For many adults, especially those older or with disabilities or underlying health issues, it may be more feasible to do brief bursts of activity each day rather than going to the gym or committing to planned, structured exercise.

“The key takeaway is that in people who don’t exercise, every minute of physical activity still has big health benefits, especially if vigorous,” said McConnell.

New research shows that small bouts of physical activity spread throughout the day could reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and premature death.

Many adults don’t get the recommended daily exercise, likely due to the cost and time commitment required.

However, this study shows that moving more through daily activities may protect the heart and promote longevity.