Exercise doesn’t have to be grueling or long to be beneficial.
Increasing the intensity of everyday physical activities — even if it’s for a short period of time — may decrease your risk of cancer, according to a new study.
The research, called The UK Biobank Accelerometry Study, analyzed 22,000 adults around the age of 62, particularly those who engaged in non-exercise, vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity, or VILPA. Those who engaged in this behavior for just a few minutes per day were more likely to have a lower risk of cancer than those who did no activity at all.
VILPA is essentially small intervals of physical activity for around one to two minutes. People in the study who had a minimum of three to four minutes of VILPA everyday were associated with a 17% to 18% reduction in cancer risk compared to people who didn’t exercise. The sample of people with four and a half minutes a day were associated with a larger reduction in cancer incidents (a 31% to 32% reduction).
The best part: These short intervals can be activities that you’re already doing every day or week, Matthew Ahmadi, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Medicine and Health and School of Health Sciences, told HuffPost.
“Typical VILPA activities include bursts of very fast walking, walking uphill, walking carrying backpack or shopping bags, stair climbing, and vigorous domestic housework or gardening,” said Ahmadi, one of the study’s authors. “A simple way for someone to know if they are doing VILPA is to pay attention to common signs of exertion. For example, when they do the activity, energetically enough to get out of breath, followed by a felt increase in the heart rate within about 20 to 30 seconds.”
There are a few limitations with the study. For example, 96% of the participants were white, making it hard to apply these findings to the general population. Additionally, the activities were self-reported, which could leave some room for human error.
Why short bursts of exercises are better for some people
The study’s researchers concluded that “daily VILPA may be a promising intervention for cancer prevention in populations not able or motivated to exercise in leisure time.”
Although exercising for longer periods of time can be helpful for many people, shorter periods of exercise may be more beneficial for some groups. Sometimes heavy or long exercise time, such as marathon running or lifting weights, can lead to immune dysfunction, while short durations of aerobic exercise enhance immune function — specifically in older adults, and people with obesity or impaired immunity.
“VILPA has important practical advantages over structured exercise, such as swimming, running, or going to the gym, as it does not require any special arrangement or time commitment, traveling to a facility, or any expenses,” Ahmadi said.
Short bursts of exercise can also help individuals who have more sedentary lifestyles, whether it’s due to their jobs or otherwise. According to the study, non-exercising adults who are middle-aged are at an increased risk of developing certain cancers — and how much time you spend sitting may be a factor.
Spending the majority of your day doing sedentary behaviors ― or all waking activities performed while sitting, reclining or lying positions, such as watching TV, working from a laptop or sitting in a car ― is associated with an increased risk of colon, endometrial and lung cancer. With 55% of people spending the majority of their days in sedentary behaviors as a result of work, reducing that time by exercising — even for five minutes — can help to reduce chronic disease risk.
How to incorporate more brief periods of exercise into your day
As mentioned, VILPA includes activities like walking up stairs or carrying groceries inside. Activities like running errands, walking the dog, gardening, mowing the lawn, and other everyday movements in our routine are all part of this category as well.
If you’re working from home, VILPA can look like walking on a desk treadmill, or implementing exercises without equipment, such as doing a few squats or other moves with just your body weight. The goal is to add more movement throughout the day.
And a lower risk for cancer isn’t the only potential upside: Generally, exercise has plentiful of positive effects on the mind and body, and is one of the most important things you can do to reduce health risks. Immediate benefits include improved thinking and cognition, and reduced feelings of depression and anxiety.
Over time, physical activity routines also have an impact on weight management, and reduce other health risks, including cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndromes, and infectious diseases.
Generally, any physical activity is better than none. Without being physically active, the function and efficiency of our cardiovascular, metabolic and respiratory systems will deteriorate, Ahmadi said.
“These systems are vital to our overall health and well-being,” Ahmadi said. “The more we use these systems, the stronger and more efficient they will become, leading to lower risks of diseases, comorbidities and death.”