A man checks his pulse after dpoing exercise as his shadow casts on the floor in a gym with an exercise mat besides himShare on Pinterest
Getting more vigorous exercise daily may be key to increased longevity. Alon Skuy/The Times/Gallo Images/Getty Images
  • Two-minute bursts of vigorous physical activity—totaling 15 minutes a week—are associated with a reduced risk of death, cancer, and heart disease, according to new research.
  • The study shows that relatively low amounts of weekly vigorous physical activity may result in health benefits.
  • Experts describe how building short bursts of exercise into your daily routine may result in long-term health outcomes.

Research shows that regular exercise results in a lower risk of developing several long-term (chronic) conditions, such as cancer and heart disease. However, new research, published in the European Heart Journal, focuses on the intensity and duration of exercise needed for people to see health benefits.

For their study, the researchers enrolled 71,893 adults without any evidence of cardiovascular disease or cancer. Participants were selected from the UK Biobank study, a prospective cohort of participants ages 40–69.

Researchers analyzed associations between how much and how often people undertook vigorous physical activity with death (all-cause, cardiovascular disease, and cancer) and the incidence of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

To understand the difference between moderate physical activity and vigorous physical activity, the researchers defined moderate physical activity as exercise that noticeably increases heart rate but not necessarily leaves people out of breath.

Vigorous physical activity, however, will likely result in an increased heart rate, and people will often need to pause for breath when speaking. Examples of vigorous physical activity include sprints, high intensity interval training (HIIT), swimming, or cycling at fast speeds.

The researchers found that the risk for all adverse outcomes under investigation was reduced as people increased how much and how often they took part in vigorous physical activity.

For example, participants who did no vigorous physical activity had a 4% risk of dying within five years. This risk was halved to 2% with less than 10 minutes of weekly vigorous activity and was halved again to a 1% risk if people did 60 minutes or more.

Participants were given wearable devices to monitor their physical activity.

The device allowed physical activity intensity to be classified into:

  • vigorous physical activity
  • moderate intensity physical activity
  • light intensity physical activity

Medical News Today interviewed lead author Dr. Matthew Ahmadi, a postdoctoral research fellow at The University of Sydney.

“This is one of the largest wearables device-based [studies] in the world and the first to assess the health-enhancing benefits of vigorous physical activity,” said Dr. Ahmadi.

“We found as little as 15 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week can lower all-cause mortality and cancer risk by 15%, and 20 minutes per week can lower heart disease risk by 40%. With additional health benefits up to approximately 50 to 60 minutes per week.”
— Dr. Matthew Ahmadi

Dr. Ahmadi explained some other key findings of this research to MNT:

“[Our] results show lower amounts of weekly vigorous physical activity were associated with health benefits against mortality, cancer, and heart disease than previously known from research evidence of which more than 90% is based on self-reported data.”

He said that thanks to using wearable devices to track participants’ physical activity levels, they were able to get more objective and accurate measurements.

“These factors contributed to the novelty of our findings that are in contrast to the self-report research evidence,” he added.

Dr, Ahmadi said their findings “provide important information for clinicians in the treatment of patients who are at high risk of chronic disease and for public health messaging to the general public. The findings will also provide important evidence in the next iteration of the U.S., U.K., and WHO physical activity guidelines.”

“Overall, we found that much lower durations of vigorous physical activity were needed to lower morbidity and mortality risks. Therefore, any physical activity a person is doing provides an opportunity to do vigorous physical activity, if they can do the activity at a faster pace or higher intensity for just short periods of time.

— Dr. Matthew Ahmadi

Doing more intense activities for short durations may also be easier to fit into everyday routines.

“This may be particularly important for people who do not have the time or do not wish to go to a gym or engage in ‘traditional’ exercise,” added Dr. Ahmadi.

Mike James, a specialist physical therapist and sports scientist nicknamed the “endurance physio”, and advisory partner to INCUS Performance, who was not involved in the study, also spoke to MNT.

James told MNT that such studies were helpful in highlighting the benefits of various types of exercise, both in the long term and for overall well-being.

The biggest take home is that people should feel liberated by the fact there’s no one size fits all or mandatory way you must follow to achieve the benefits of exercise on your health,” he said.

“For those people who are already doing exercise, that is great and they should keep doing it. But for people who can not make it to a gym, they can also attain the health benefits of vigorous physical activity by doing their daily activities at a faster pace, even if it’s just for short periods of time. For example, gardening or doing household chores at a little higher intensity for short periods, or fast walking interspersed with comfortable walking pace when walking during the day.”
— Mike James, specialist physical therapist

James had the following recommendations for people interested in starting higher-intensity exercises:

“It may be a case of gradually building intensity over time and certainly not starting it initially as a means of fitness training. For many, a low-level, less intense plan that is progressed to this type of exercise may be a sensible way to begin before transitioning to it. For others, it could be an alternative type of fitness to use when life becomes difficult to fit exercise in, work trips, school holidays, etc,”

He also cautioned people to check with a health and/or fitness professional before embarking on and adding a new or different type of exercise plan into their routines.

When considering how much exercise time is enough, Dr. Ahmadi noted that the study showed there may be an optimum, telling MNT that “over a given week, this will allow them to accumulate that “sweet spot” of 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week or a minimum of 15-20 minutes per week.”

James noted that vigorous physical activity may not be suitable for everyone.

“What we must be cautious and aware of, is that even short bursts of high intensity, vigorous activity may not be suitable straight away for many based on their current activity, fitness, health status or injury history,” James said.

James also underscored that for such activities to become habits, all fitness and exercise plans needed commitment and adherence over a period of time, adding that “anything that can reduce the barriers to doing this can be a positive.”