In recent years research has shown that short bouts of exercise, even 10 minutes long, can be as healthful as longer sessions, provided they add up to the same amount of daily or weekly workout time. A parallel line of study has been finding that the more sedentary people are, the greater the health risks, regardless of how much time they spend exercising.
Now new research is combining these threads and finding that ordinary bouts of moderate activity as short as a minute or two—such as taking the stairs instead of an escalator or pacing while talking on the phone—done throughout the day, can be as healthful as longer workouts, with the added benefit that they break up periods of inactivity such as sitting.
That’s good news, since many people don’t have time or energy to commit to a structured exercise program, and it’s easy to integrate short bouts into daily schedules. This approach has been dubbed “lifestyle physical activity” or simply an “active lifestyle.” For many of us, this is a more natural way to stay active.
A new study examined the benefits of just moving around a lot, using a national database of people who wore a device (an “accelerometer”) that measured their movements for at least four days. The researchers controlled for factors such as age, diet, weight, smoking, medication, and overall health.
The study, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, involved 6,300 people ages 18 to 85. It found that the 43 percent who moved around moderately for at least 150 minutes a week in increments shorter than 10 minutes fared just as well in terms of cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and waist circumference as the 10 percent who did longer bouts of activity.
As the researchers concluded, compared to structured exercise, lifestyle activity “is more likely to be adopted and adhered to, results in higher levels of weekly leisure-time physical activity, reduces cardiovascular disease risk factors equally well, is more in line with people’s natural movement patterns and tendencies and is more cost effective.”
In another study, breaking up exercise workouts into shorter sessions actually proved more beneficial for its effect one blood pressure than one long workout. In the small study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, young people with borderline high blood pressure walked briskly three times a day (four hours apart) for 10 minutes. The next day, they walked briskly once for 30 minutes. Their blood pressure was monitored continuously.
The divided schedule produced lower 24-hour readings, as well as fewer daily spikes in blood pressure. Previous research has also found that short, cumulative workouts can help control weight, blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood sugar, as well as build bones and have other benefits. In addition, some people are more likely to stick to such a regimen.