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A Few Minutes of Physical Activity a Day Is Healthier Than None

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A Few Minutes of Physical Activity a Day Is Healthier Than None

Feb 22, 2023

To get the most health benefit, adults should get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a day, three to five days a week. But a new study shows evidence that as little as two to three minutes of activity a day can lead to real health improvements for people currently doing little to no activity. Troy Madsen, MD, explains the research and what it could mean for patients.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: If you're not really physically active and you don't quite know how to get that 30 minutes a day in that they say that you should of physical activity, you shouldn't completely give up because there is benefit to shorter amounts of exercise.

Dr. Troy Madsen is from the emergency department at University of Utah Health. And Troy, tell me about this recent study that came out that said even just little bits of activity could make a huge difference in your health.

Little Bits of Physical Activity Can Make a Huge Difference in Your Health

Dr. Madsen: That's right, Scot. So there was a study in the journal "Nature Medicine" that looked at people who basically were pretty much sedentary. And then within this group, they compared people who were having just what they were describing as vigorous, intermittent lifestyle physical activity, which basically just means short bursts of energy like a minute long. So I'm talking like walking up the stairs, moving furniture, shoveling snow.

And they found that people who were just doing just a very minimal amount like that, maybe three times a day, had significant improvements over the next six or seven years in their cancer risk, in death from cancer, heart disease risk. Really surprising results just based on very small amounts of activity, just short bursts of activity that yielded big results for  them.

Interviewer: That's pretty incredible. Does that surprise you?

Dr. Madsen: Oh, it really surprised me, yeah. We always think, "Okay, you've got to get 30 minutes three times a week." And that's kind of the number we put out there. If you really want the health benefits of exercise, it has to be more than just a minute. But again, they were comparing people within groups where they were pretty much sedentary otherwise. They really weren't exercising, and they weren't doing 30 minutes three times a week.

But I think the point is if you happen to be in that group where you're just not getting a lot of activity, if you can just take the stairs, just do stuff that kind of gets your heart rate up, vigorous activity, a minute, two minutes two or three times a day, you will definitely see benefits compared to not doing those things.

Interviewer: So then if somebody starts incorporating that into their life, is that good enough, or can you actually then get more benefit if you do that more exercise like we tend to believe?

Dr. Madsen: Yeah, you definitely do get more benefit. So that's one thing they found as well. Once you went beyond that, certainly if you are going beyond that, you are getting additional benefit. But all that being said, the point they tried to drive home with this was there was a significant benefit from doing a lot less than what a person thinks they might need to do to get some benefit from exercise.

Health Benefits of Short Bursts of Physical Activity for Sedentary People

Interviewer: And what would your takeaway for a patient be with this information?

Dr. Madsen: My takeaway would be if you're just sedentary, you just don't exercise consistently, try just taking the stairs. Try doing something. Again, they talked about people who are saying they move furniture or they shovel their snow, just things like that. Short bursts of activity, just do that a few times a day. I think you're going to be better off in the long run for sure.

Interviewer: So are you advocating then that instead of that 30 minutes a day, if I'm getting that, I could just do one or two minutes a day?

Dr. Madsen: That's a great question, Scot. You're definitely better off doing the 30 minutes three times a week. No question about it. Researchers showed that as well in this study. But compared to those who were doing nothing, if you can at least get this one or two minutes a few times a day, you're better off than that group.

Immediate and Long-term Health Benefits of Incorporating Short Bursts of Physical Activity into Your Daily Routine

Interviewer: And maybe that'll get the ball rolling and help somebody get up to the 30 minutes that thought that they might not be able to do that.

Dr. Madsen: That's exactly right. I think you're going to get immediate benefits from it. There are long-term benefits. I think you're going to feel better doing it, and then hopefully get up to more of that 30 minutes three times a week.

Interviewer: And we're talking about internal health benefits. You might not necessarily see weight loss or anything like that.

Dr. Madsen: You might see a little weight loss too. But the study is talking specifically about, like you said, those internal benefits, reduced risk of death, heart disease, cancer years down the road, but I think you might even see maybe a little weight loss. You're going to feel better. You're going to feel more active, more mobile. So I think all of those things are going to have immediate benefits.