Do Tiny Amounts of Vigorous Physical Activity Matter?

Brief, high-intensity everyday activities

One of the commonly overlooked changes in the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans concerns the minimum amount of exercise that improves health. The old minimum of 10 minutes (unsupported by data) went by the wayside but was not replaced with another number. Recent Australian research suggests that the smallest amount of physical activity, especially if it’s strenuous, can enhance health. Even short-duration, everyday activities that people normally do, such as walking stairs, or cycling to work, or carrying a load of groceries upstairs, performed at a rapid pace across 5-6 days per week, can potentially account for two-thirds of the minimum recommended weekly physical activity – with zero additional time commitment! Thus, busy people who think they don’t have enough time to exercise can get most of their minimum weekly exercise simply by performing some of their normal daily activities at a rapid pace. What a great deal!

Stair climbing

Canadian researchers  investigated the efficacy of brief, intense stair climbing as a practical model of sprint interval training to improve cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF). In one study, 31 sedentary, normal-weight young women performed sprint interval training that involved three 20-second “all-out” efforts of either continuously ascending stairs or cycling over three days per week for six weeks. Peak oxygen uptake increased by 12 percent. Brief, intense stair climbing is a practical, time-efficient strategy to improve CRF in previously untrained women.

Overwhelming evidence shows that healthy lifestyle choice, Keep Moving, predicts better health and lower risk of chronic conditions. Nonetheless, middle-aged adults have low participation rates in structured, vigorous physical activity.  On the other hand, questionnaires that typically provide data for physical activity participation do not often capture incidental, short-duration vigorous activities, such as climbing stairs, which are part of daily life. Wearable devices can capture these brief periods of vigorous physical activity.

Four minutes a day to better health

Researchers used data from wearable devices in the UK Biobank Study to determine if vigorous, intermittent lifestyle physical activity (VILPA) of participants who reported no physical activity would predict risk of premature death, cardiovascular disease or cancer. During an average follow-up of 7 years and compared to participants with zero self-reported VILPA, participants who had an average of just over 3 bouts of wearable device recorded VILPA per day lasting one minute each had 49 percent lower risk of all-cause mortality. For cardiovascular disease mortality and cancer mortality, the comparable reductions in risk were 49 and 30 percent, respectively. While these results may seem implausibly good, this study aligns with results of previous studies of high-intensity interval training and intermittent stair climbing. Overall, two or three short bursts of VILPA lasting a total of 3-4 minutes per day predicted substantial declines in all-cause, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality. Physicians could easily share this information with their older patients who are non-exercisers and possibly motivate them to find brief opportunities for vigorous physical activity, such as stair climbing, in daily lives


The recently physical activity guidelines for Americans recognize the health value of short periods of vigorous physical activity (less than 10 minutes). Short bouts of vigorous physical activity appear to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease. A flock of physical activity researchers recently proposed a potentially major role for vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity (VILPA). It refers to activities performed as part of daily life, without the need for specialized equipment or planning and not done with the explicit purpose of being physically active. Such activities could include short periods (1-3 minutes) of walking briskly to catch a bus to work, climbing stairs at work, or running errands on a bicycle. VILPA could become a beneficial complement to planned and structured physical activity in that it might be more appealing to people who reject exercise for one reason or another. Can you find brief opportunities in your daily life to Keep Moving at a brisk pace?

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