Researchers have been studying the impact of exercise on longevity for a long time, and now a new study published in the European Heart Journal points to conclusive data that even a little can go a long way. In the study, researchers hypothesized that short bouts of vigorous physical activity would lower mortality and the incidence of cardiovascular disease and cancer, thus, increasing longevity.
As little as two minutes of vigorous activity can produce health benefits.
A regular exercise routine or simple daily activities can be used to raise your heart to beneficial levels.
Gradually building activity-level duration and intensity will help prevent injury.
Lead author of the study Dr. Matthew Ahmadi, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sydney, told Healthnews that their study was the first step toward understanding the health potential of increasing the intensity of everyday activities in short bursts spread throughout the day.
Furthermore, Dr. Ahmadi added, “Moving more at a higher intensity during daily living may have long-term health benefits. This will help make people aware that any activity they do is an opportunity to improve their health and longevity if they can do them at a little higher intensity for short bursts of up to two minutes spread throughout the day.”
What counts as vigorous physical activity?
Dr. Ahmadi said many daily activities could be converted to vigorous bursts by tweaking their intensity and pushing a little harder. However, from a subjective point of view, a good general rule of thumb is that if you are doing an activity and it is difficult to hold a conversation with someone, then it is likely a vigorous activity.
However, with varying fitness levels, what is “vigorous” for one person may be simply moderate for another.
On the other hand, having objective data can be very helpful to ensure you’re reaching that higher intensity while performing an activity. For example, with wearable technology widely available, you can monitor your heart rate, which can be a great indicator of exercise length and intensity.
Calculating your maximum heart rate
There's a simple formula for calculating your maximum heart rate (HR). You can calculate your age-predicted maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. Additionally, as Dr. Ahmadi explained, a slightly more accurate formula can be used to calculate your max HR: 208 – (age x 0.7).
Dr. Ahmadi went on to say that exercising to 77% of your maximum heart rate is considered vigorous activity. For example, if your age-predicted maximum heart rate is 180 beats per minute (bpm), 139 bpm is vigorous.
Examples of vigorous activities include high-intensity interval training (HIIT), sprints, fast-paced cycling, and aerobic dancing. Any activity that raises your heart rate to proper levels is effective.
Computing heart rate reserve
Determining your heart rate reserve (HRR) helps you understand what kind of shape you're in and gives you some insight into how hard you and your heart work while exercising. To calculate vigorous intensity based on your resting heart rate, you need to calculate your HRR. First, use the formula and subtract your resting heart rate from your maximum heart rate. Next, add 60% of this value back to your resting HRR. This final figure is your heart rate zone for vigorous intensity.
For example, if your resting heart rate is 60 bpm and your maximum heart rate is 180 bpm, the calculation would look like this:
180-60 = 120 bpm
120*60% = 72 bpm
60+72 = 132 bpm
Therefore, using this formula, your target heart rate would be 132 bpm for the bottom threshold for vigorous intensity.
Dr. Ahmadi's study design and method
Researchers enrolled participants from the UK Biobank study, a prospective cohort of 502,629 ages between 40-69 years with no history of prevalent cardiovascular disease (CVD) or cancer between 2006 and 2010. Then between 2013 and 2015, 103,684 adults were sent and wore an accelerometer device on their dominant wrist 24/7 for a week to measure physical activity.
The wearable aimed to measure the intensity of the participant’s daily activities. According to the study, “physical activity intensity was classified with a validated accelerometer-based activity machine learning scheme covering VPA [vigorous physical activity], moderate-intensity physical activity, and light-intensity physical activity.”
The study monitored participants in three category samples: mortality (71,893 participants), incident CVD (71,049 participants), and incident cancer (71,070 participants).
The study results
Findings showed that approximately 53 minutes per week of vigorous physical activity was associated with 36% lower all-cause mortality.
However, even as little as 15 minutes per week was associated with a 16-18% lower all-cause and cancer mortality risk. Furthermore, the data showed that just 20 minutes per week was associated with a 40% lower cardiovascular mortality risk.
What does this mean to you? The data seems clear, from improving cardiorespiratory fitness and metabolic health to bone density, the benefits of exercise are vast — and research continues to reveal more each year.
This study shed new light on the fact that even if you can’t make it to the gym for an hour or go for a 30-minute run, you can still enjoy the longevity benefits of a 2-minute vigorous daily activity.
All you have to do, as Dr. Ahmadi told Healthnews, is to perform your “ daily activities at a faster pace, even if it’s just for short periods of time. For example, gardening or doing household chores at a little higher intensity for short periods, or fast walking interspersed with comfortable walking pace when walking during the day. ”
Dr. Ahmadi added that over a given week, this would allow you to accumulate that “sweet spot” of 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week, but he went on to say that we should all aim for at least 15-20 minutes per week.
How to get started
If you’re new to regular physical activity or haven't adhered to an exercise routine for some time, focus on gradually building intensity over time to avoid injury. Monitor your heart rate so that you're in the right zone, but also pay attention to how quickly your heart rate accelerates. If you're not using a wearable device, you can estimate a fairly accurate reading by being conscious of your breathing while raising your activity level.
"It is always safest to check with a health professional before embarking on and adding a new or different type of activity or exercise into daily routines,"Dr. Ahmadi
Furthermore, to avoid doing too much too soon, Dr. Ahmadi recommends incorporating micro-breaks into your days. Start with just one two-minute burst of activity, then add a couple more if you can. This will not only help you live longer, but you’ll start to see how this benefits your focus and cognitive performance throughout the day in the long term.
Potential to change global health guidelines
The findings of this new study could pave the way for more research investigating the impact that short bouts of high-intensity activity have on overall health and longevity. Current guidelines of the World Health Organization recommend that adults take part in “150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity, or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or some equivalent combination of moderate-intensity and vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, per week.
However, it's important to note that Dr. Ahmadi told Healthnews that these guidelines are based upon more than 90% of self-reported data. This means that by interpreting the study's results, researchers may find a lack of objective elements that would provide more accurate insight into exercise length and intensity. Hence, “evidence has been scarce on the health potential of short bouts of high-intensity activity at a population level as this cannot be measured with self-report data (due to memory recall limitations of recalling short incidental everyday activities),” he said.
Using wearable devices in this study allowed for continuous measurements of physical activity, suggesting that much lower amounts of vigorous activity than previously reported might be beneficial, and they did not need to be accumulated in long bouts to attain health benefits and longevity.
"The findings from our study provide new insights into the health potential of short, vigorous bouts of activity,... If these results are confirmed in other studies/demographics/populations, then this cumulative evidence base may prompt changes in the current guidelines."Dr. Ahmadi
In any event, the evidence seems clear — regular exercise helps you live longer. Combining a healthy diet and adequate sleep hygiene with as little as two minutes of vigorous activity daily has been shown to provide health benefits. Understanding your resting heart rate and calculating your maximum heart rate will allow you to establish your heart rate reserve as well as a target heart rate as a reference to monitor your progress to increase your overall activity levels slowly.