Facebook Twitter

Can small, 1-minute exercise bursts improve your health?

New research says activities you do anyway, like carrying groceries or climbing a flight of stairs, can underpin a healthier life if you pick up the pace

SHARE Can small, 1-minute exercise bursts improve your health?
Andrea Lenneman of Denver runs a flight of stairs outside Mile High Stadium in Denver.

With gymnasiums closed because of the spread of the coronavirus, Andrea Lenneman of Denver runs a flight of stairs outside Mile High Stadium Sunday, March 22, 2020, in Denver.

David Zalubowski, Associated Press

Exercise has no detractors, though some folks find it hard to really engage. And there’s some disagreement about what form — and how long — works best, too.

But couch potatoes and more sedentary folks should take heart. A recent study suggests that minute-long bursts of activity can make a big difference to one’s overall health.

You have to go to the store and climb that flight of stairs anyway. You can’t avoid the walk from the car to the house. But you can rev the pace and turn what some call “exercise snacks” into more healthy activity.

And when it comes to neck and back pain, for instance, nothing beats “taking short spurts of movement throughout the day to relieve tension and stress in the body,” as NPR recently reported.

The article said these “snacks” may help prevent pain this way: “When the brain senses physical or emotional stress, the body releases hormones that trigger muscles to become guarded and tight. Exercise counters that stress response by increasing blood flow to muscles, tendons and ligaments and sending nutrients to the spine’s joints and discs.”

Experts also credit the “movement snacks” with improving heart health, stopping muscle loss and reducing stress, NPR said. “Stretch, flex or even fidget,” it counsels.

The fancier term among short-burst exercise advocates and researchers is VILPA: vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity.

Accruing health benefits

El Pais explored some of the research, noting studies conducted in the United Kingdom published in the European Heart Journal that said “just 20 minutes of vigorous physical activity a week can reduce mortality associated with all causes, in addition to reducing risk of cardiac illness by 40%.”

Another, an Australian study published last month in the journal Nature Medicine, said “that small one-minute bursts of intense exercise during a daily routine — carrying groceries home, walking rapidly to work or climbing stairs, for example — can have a significant impact on the health of sedentary people,” El Pais reported.

One of that study’s authors, Dr. Emmanuel Stamatakis, told El Pais that “as little as three to four one-minute bursts” of activity was “associated with a nearly 50% reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease-related mortality, compared with people who did not perform that exercise, and almost 40% in the risk of mortality from all causes and from cancer.”

The researchers do note improved benefits when someone does more exercise bursts. It’s a case of 10 bursts in a day being better than five.

Stamatakis told Newsweek that it’s hard to get sedentary middle-aged and older adults to exercise, but they can benefit from making short everyday activities more intense.

“VILPA has major feasibility advantages over conventional leisure time exercise as it needs minimal or no time commitment, it does not involve special clothing or other preparations, does not need traveling to a health club or gym, it is free to do, and it does not demand paying fees buying special exercise equipment,” he said.

NASA creates a plan

The cardiovascular system’s not the only part of the body that can be targeted with short bursts of activity. Folks who spend a lot of time sitting while they work can accrue different benefits with a different set of exercises.

The NASA Headquarters Fitness Center staff members Tanya Johnson, Marceleus Venable and Kimber Williams created a DeskFit Program that includes 20 exercises that can be done without leaving the office or home workspace. In its introduction, it notes the most important part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans is to sit less and move more.

“There is a strong correlation between sedentary behavior and increased risk of all causes of mortality, including heart disease, cancer and numerous metabolid diseases,” the NASA brochure says. “Regular physical activity helps to manage chronic health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, arthritis, dementia and obesity. It provides long-term benefits for reducing anxiety, improving sleep and cognition, lowering risk of injuries and maintaining a healthy weight.”

The NASA exercises include everything from seated marches and leg extensions to desk push-ups and planks.

As for the more intense efforts, it’s as simple as increasing the intensity and pace of simple acts like walking through the store.