You may be able to prolong your life just by moving more vigorously a few times a day. Australian researchers found that non-exercisers who had 3-4 short bouts of vigorous activity each day had a 40 percent reduction in all-cause death rate, a 40 percent reduction in cancer-related deaths, and up to a 49 percent reduction in heart attack deaths (Nature Medicine, December 8, 2022). Ninety-three percent of the short bursts of activity lasted no more than one minute, and totaled about six minutes per day from an average of eight short bursts. The more bouts of short fast movements, the greater the reduction in death rate.
The data for this study came from 25,241 UK Biobank participants who had heart rate monitors on their wristwatches, and had been followed for for an average of 6.9 years. (UK Biobank is a large-scale biomedical database and research resource, containing in-depth genetic and health information on more than 500,000 people in the UK.) The participants in this group said they had no formal exercise program but showed at least four minutes per day of activity that raised their heart rate significantly. In this study, the vigorous physical activities included anything that raised the heart rate for a minute or more, such as lifting heavy packages, vigorous sweeping of a sidewalk, climbing stairs, walking fast, mowing the lawn, playing high-energy games with kids, or running for a bus.
The authors compared the death rates from heart attacks, cancers, and all causes in this no-formal-exercise group to a group of 62,344 people who said they regularly engaged in exercise. They found similar protection from early death in both of these active groups, when compared with the sedentary UK Biobank participants who said they did not exercise and did not show evidence of vigorous activity on their heart rate monitors.
Other Studies Show That Any Physical Activity Helps to Prolong Lives
Adding 30 minutes per day of physical activity would prevent an estimated 275,000 deaths each year (JAMA Intern Med, 2022;182(3):349-352). Many studies show that increasing intensity of movement up to a point increases protection from suffering and dying from a heart attack (J of the Am Coll of Card, Jan 2016;67(3):316-329). A review of studies on exercise found that intense activity can be more protective from heart attacks than less intense exercise, but for some susceptible people, it could cause a heart attack (World J Cardiol, Jul 26, 2019;11(7):171–188). The American Heart Association (Circulation, 134(24)(2016), e653-e699) and The American Society for Preventive Cardiology (Am J of Prev Cardiol, Dec 2022;12:100424) strongly recommend an exercise program for everyone who can do so without specific health or physical limitations.
If you can’t or don’t want to participate in a formal exercise program, you can still help to prolong your life by moving vigorously for about a minute at least three or four times a day. However, on rare occasions, intense exercise can cause a heart attack, so non-exercisers should check with their doctors before they start moving vigorously during any activity.
If you are not accustomed to activities that raise your heart rate, please read my article on How to Start an Exercise Program. Pick an activity that uses continuous motion (such as walking, running, cycling, swimming, skating, rowing, dancing) that you think you might enjoy, and start out at a relaxed pace. For the first several days or weeks you may be able to exercise only for a few minutes. Increase the amount of time gradually until you can exercise about 30 minutes a day.
Caution: Exercise can cause a heart attack in a person who has blocked arteries or heart damage. Check with your doctor before you start a new exercise program or vigorous activity.