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Researchers found that short 1-minute bursts of physical activity totaling about 4.5 minutes daily could lower your risk of cancer. Westend61/Getty Images
  • A new study looked at the effects of vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity (VILPA) on cancer risk.
  • Researchers tracked the daily vigorous activity of 22,398 non-exercisers using data from wrist-worn accelerometers and monitored their health records for cancer for almost 7 years.
  • Compared with no VIPLA, 4.5 minutes of VILPA a day accrued through 1-minute bursts of activity was associated with up to a 32% reduced cancer risk.
  • Everyday life offers plenty of opportunities to be physically active at a vigorous level, including stair climbing, carrying groceries, and power walking.

Physical activity is an important facet of overall health and well-being

Research shows that regular exercise can lower the risk of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that people who are insufficiently active have a 20–30% higher risk of death compared to people who are sufficiently active.

Although the importance of physical activity is abundantly clear, around 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men worldwide do not follow the recommendation for moderate-intensity exercise for at least 150 minutes or vigorous-intensity exercise for 75 minutes each week.

A new study brings good news for people who do not like or cannot do structured vigorous exercise.

Based on wrist-worn accelerometer measurements from 22,398 non-exercising adults gathered via the UK Biobank, just 4.5 minutes per day of vigorous-intensity physical activity performed in 1-minute bursts were associated with up to 32% lower risk of cancer.

The study was led by Dr. Emmanuel Stamatakis, professor of physical activity, lifestyle, and population health at the University of Sydney, Australia, and published in JAMA Oncology.

“We need to further investigate this link through robust trials, but it appears that VILPA [Vigorous Intermittent Lifestyle Physical Activity] may be a promising cost-free recommendation for lowering cancer risk in people who find structured exercise difficult or unappealing,” Dr. Stamatakis noted in a press release.

Dr. Stamatakis and his collaborators coined the term vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity (VILPA) to refer to short bouts of physical activities that are part of our lifestyle (daily living).

Examples of VILPA include, but are not limited to:

  • walking uphill
  • climbing stairs
  • maximizing walking pace for a short distance — for instance, 100–200 meters — to reach vigorous intensity, also known as power walking
  • carrying children or groceries for 50–100 meters
  • vigorous housework.

VILPA is different from traditional vigorous physical activity because it is brief — up to 1-2 minute bouts — and sporadic, rather than continuous and structured.

The study was a prospective cohort study of adults ages between 40–69 years who made their data available to the UK Biobank.

To assess the relationship between VILPA and cancer occurrence, the research team led by Dr. Stamatakis only included individuals from the accelerometer-wearing cohort who reported not doing any exercise in their leisure time and taking one or fewer recreational walks per week.

People with missing information, previous cancer, or not wearing the activity monitor properly were excluded from the study.

The study population included 22,398 people with an average age of 62 years. Of these, 54.8% were women, and the majority (96.0%) were white.

During a mean follow-up period of 6.7 years, the researchers identified 2,356 new cancer events — including cancer registration, hospitalization for cancer, or death attributed to any cancer.

To classify accelerometer-recorded physical activity based on intensity — vigorous, moderate, and light — the researchers used a machine-learning technique called “random forest.”

Most episodes of VILPA occurred in short bursts of up to 1 or 2 minutes. On average, people engaged in VILPA for about 4.5 minutes each day, with the maximum time being 16 minutes.

Statistical analyses revealed that the relationship between VILPA and cancer risk is almost linear, which means that the more VILPA a person does, the lower their risk of cancer.

Compared to people who did not do any VILPA (6.2% of study participants), those who did VILPA for about 4.5 minutes each day — in short bursts of up to 1 or 2 minutes — had a 20% lower risk of cancer.

Previous research has shown that certain types of cancer are associated with low levels of physical activity. These include:

  • liver
  • lung
  • kidney
  • gastric cardia (a type of stomach cancer)
  • endometrial
  • myeloid leukemia
  • myeloma
  • colorectal
  • head and neck
  • bladder
  • breast cancer
  • esophageal adenocarcinoma (cancer of the esophagus)

This study shows that the risk of these physical activity-related cancers is reduced by about 31% in people who did 4.5 minutes of VILPA daily.

The researchers also identified the minimum amount of VILPA needed to significantly reduce cancer risk. They found that 3.4 minutes of VILPA daily can lower the total risk of cancer by 17%, while 3.6 minutes of VILPA daily can lower the risk of physical activity-related cancer by 18%.

Medical News Today asked experts who were not involved in the study to share their thoughts on the research.

Dr. David Raichlen, professor of biological sciences and anthropology at the University of Southern California, praised the “high-quality study” for “showing that a relatively small amount of vigorous lifestyle activity can have such a strong association with reduced cancer risk”.

He observed that “the authors used a novel machine learning-based method to identify behaviors and this study moves the field forward allowing us to better understand the benefits of this form of physical activity on [the] risk of developing cancer.”

Dr. Raichlen cautioned that the study cannot establish causality due to its design, “but this work certainly suggests that future intervention studies using VILPA are warranted.”

Prof. Markus Gruber, chair of Training and Movement Science and head of the Human Performance Research Centre at the University Konstanz, told MNT that the study confirms a long-known fact in exercise science: “Intensity matters.”

Like Dr. Raichlen, Prof. Gruber pointed out that while the data, methodology, and analysis included in this study are sound, the study is cross-sectional and can only report associations between VILPA and cancer incidence.

When asked about the link between VILPA and cancer incidence, Prof. Gruber said that there are various potential “explanations for the results that need to be tested.”

According to him, VILPA might directly reduce cancer risk, increase physical fitness, or indicate better physical fitness, which is associated with reduced cancer risk. VILPA might also play a role in countering age-related declines in physical fitness, and thereby influence cancer risk.

Overall, Prof. Gruber believes that VILPA is a promising alternative to duration-based recommendations for physical activity, “especially for individuals who dislike to exercise.”