When it comes to the health benefits of walking, every step counts.
The short bouts of exercise you get throughout the day — a 10-minute walk to the train station; a 5-minute hike up the stairs to the office and the 20-minute post-work power walk — all count toward the recommended daily exercise guidelines.
JUST GET MOVING
In preparation to update the federal exercise guidelines, which advise 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, researchers reviewed data about the health effects of exercise and decided to alter their recommendations: Instead of encouraging adults to get at least 30 minutes of exercise per day in sessions lasting for at least 10 minutes each, they discovered that any amount of exercise — even if it was done in much shorter sessions — helped improve health and longevity.
“We observed lower mortality for more active individuals irrespective of how they accumulated the activity: in 1-minute, 5- or 10-minute increments,” explains Pedro Saint-Maurice, postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the National Cancer Institute. “Our results suggest that how physical activity is accumulated (in short or long increments) is less important than accumulating minutes of moderate-vigorous intensity physical activity throughout the day or week.”
The results, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association were based on long-term data collected through the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The researchers tracked 4,840 participants over age 40 who used activity trackers to monitor their movements.
Any movement that lasted longer than five minutes was considered a bout of exercise; shorter periods of exercise (like walking from the parking lot into the supermarket) were considered sporadic physical activity.
The results showed that the participants who moved most often, accumulating an hour of physical activity per day — even if their activities were limited to shorter periods of movement — cut their mortality risk in half.
“These results suggest that total physical activity or volume of physical activity matters the most to get the benefits for health associated with being active,” Saint-Maurice says.
SHORT BOUTS COUNT, BUT…
While short bouts of exercise do count, the goal is still to accumulate at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per day, notes Alpa Patel, PhD, strategic director, Cancer Prevention Study-3 at the American Cancer Society.
“When it comes to exercise, going from nothing to something is very beneficial, but ideally all adults should strive to reach recommended levels for optimal health and longevity,” she says.
Patel co-authored a 2015 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine that found that exceeding the recommendations for the amount of moderate-intensity physical activity per week — at least 90 minutes per day — had the strongest impact on longevity. Study participants who met the recommended physical activity guidelines lowered their risk of death by 31% during the study period but those who achieved 3–5 times the recommended amount decreased their risk of death by 39%.
“The findings of our study are very consistent with most other studies that show there is tremendous health benefit from any level of exercise, but striving to meet or exceed recommended levels is optimal,” says Patel.
Patel notes that regular exercise is linked with health benefits ranging from reduced inflammation and improved glucose metabolism to improved immune response and weight control, which help lower the risk of potentially fatal health conditions.
Despite the fact that just 42% of adults between the ages of 65–74 meet the recommended physical activity guidelines, those who exercised even a little were less likely to die during the study period than those who got no exercise at all, according to research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The takeaway message, according to Saint-Maurice: “People should take on every opportunity they have throughout the day to be more active and reach the recommended amounts of physical activity.”