Study: Surprisingly Short Bursts of Activity Can Have Big Results for Your Heart

Updated: Nov. 27, 2023

The lead researcher concludes that the longevity-boosting benefits participants received "all came from activities of daily living"—no major sweat session required.

Exercise is good for your heart—science makes that a tough point to argue with. But just how much movement do you need to engage in to protect your heart as you age?

One national guideline for healthy movement is 150 minutes of moderate to intense activity each week, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers any activity that gets a person “breathing hard.” However, if you’re older, recovering from a medical event, or experiencing a certain condition, this goal can feel out of reach.

New research suggests less exercise may be necessary than you believe, and you could be doing enough already if you’re squeezing in some quality movement for just a few minutes several times a day.

A study published in the October 2023 issue of the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet set out to discover what short bouts of physical activities would do for the mortality rate and major cardiac events, like heart attacks and strokes, over the course of several years.

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The study analyzed data from more than 25,000 adults who did not participate in structured physical exercise and wore a device on their wrists that tracked movement. The researchers revisited this group seven to nine years after the initial phase to evaluate what, if any, effect their routine daily activities had on their heart health.

Researchers noted any burst of activity that lasted longer than a minute and up to 10 minutes seemed to lead to a lower risk of all-cause mortality. In particular, they discovered that people whose devices reported at least four instances of two- to three-minute bursts of exercise over the course of most days across several years experienced a significantly lower risk of heart disease and cancer. People who generally moved in increments of one minute or more, and up to 10 minutes daily, saw a 29% to 44% lower incidence of mortality and fewer heart-related events over the course of the study compared to those who moved less than one minute.

However, even activities of less than one minute in duration had some benefit, but only when 15% of the activities could be classified as “vigorous.” Although the study does not mention what truly constitutes the difference between “vigorous” and “moderate” activity, nearly any time over a minute spent being active seemed to help over the course of several years.

“The health-enhancing benefits they received all came from activities of daily living such as playing with children, gardening and household tasks that mixed in short bursts of vigorous intensity,” says lead researcher Dr. Matthew Ahmadi, a postdoctoral research fellow at Australia’s University of Sydney. Perhaps that’s why older adults who have pets or spend time with their grandchildren tend to live longer.

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The researchers note that this data brings added value because it didn’t involve people self-reporting their activity, as several studies on exercise do, but instead employed a tracking device. Research shows many people are prone to overestimating their own exertion, and with a wearable device, that misrepresentation could be taken out of the equation.

The scientists also note that traditional studies tend to focus on structured activities to measure how well exercise protects people from mortality and heart disease, but people who are generally active while not into working out or sports are rarely studied. The population most at risk for deteriorating health—these inactive, older adults—might benefit from a message to move more over the course of the day versus beginning a costly, time-consuming, or even painful exercise plan.

So if the recommendation of 150 minutes of exercise per week is daunting, make those short tasks—walking around the block, unloading groceries, or chasing those little ones—a tiny bit more strenuous for an overall health benefit. Investing in a wearable device that tracks heart rate and steps could be a convenient way of knowing where you stand, too.