Federal guidelines say U.S. adults should get at least 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity, or 150 minutes of less-intense activity, each week. But over the past few years, a slew of studies have promoted the benefits of getting much, much less exercise than that.
One 2022 study found that squeezing in just three one-minute bursts of vigorous activity each day could lead to a longer life. Another study, also published in 2022, linked 15 minutes of weekly physical activity to extended longevity. A 2019 paper went even further, arguing that just 10 minutes of weekly movement could help you live longer. These results are tantalizing—but also may seem a little too good to be true, given long-standing activity guidelines that recommend getting roughly 10 times as much exercise to stay healthy.
“There are probably people out there who are looking at this and saying, ‘Well, I’m not sure I buy that,’” says Stephen J. Carter, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the Indiana University Bloomington School of Public Health who researches exercise and aging. “But maybe we ought to be thinking about exercise differently.”
Any amount of movement is better than none, Carter says, and it takes surprisingly little to benefit your health.
How short bursts of activity benefit your health
When you put stress on your body through exercise, even for a short time, you trigger physiological changes, says Malia Blue, an assistant professor of exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Even small doses of activity can increase blood flow and improve the body’s ability to regulate blood-sugar levels. Over time, these changes could reduce your risks for conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, Blue says.
When your muscles are active, they also release compounds that can improve the health of organs throughout your body, says Kevin Murach, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas who researches muscle biology.
Plus, by getting up and moving—even for just a minute—you’re interrupting sedentary time, Blue says. Research has shown that sitting too much is bad for your health, and that replacing virtually any amount of sedentary time with movement is beneficial. “There’s a kind of a twofold [benefit]: if you break up your sedentary time and you increase your physical activity, you’re going to see health benefits from both,” Blue says.
People who exercise in hopes of losing weight or training for a specific athletic event probably won’t get dramatic results with a few minutes per day. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t benefiting from those short spurts of movement.
“People want that instant gratification and frankly, that’s just not possible with exercise,” Carter says. “You might not look like the YouTuber” leading your workout after a five-minute class, “but you’re doing yourself a bit of good.”
Studies back that up: One widely cited research review from 2014 demonstrated that cardiorespiratory fitness is a better predictor of mortality than body mass index. That finding shows exercise can benefit your health at any size. The benefits also extend beyond your physical body, as many studies have shown that movement benefits mental well-being.
The benefits can be hard to quantify
Murach agrees that even a little exercise can improve your health, but he says it’s important to be cautious when interpreting studies on bite-sized workouts. Often, studies capture only a snapshot of time rather than participants’ entire lives, Murach says. Some studies also don’t do a great job of teasing out whether exercise caused certain health benefits or is simply correlated with them.
“I’m sure there is a benefit,” Murach says. “But if you’re doing a minute of exercise a day, is that going to be the silver bullet for extending your lifespan?” That’s harder to know for certain, he says.
Another complicating factor is that people start from different baselines. For someone who is entirely sedentary, adding even a short amount of exercise per week might be a fairly dramatic change. But for someone who is already exercising sporadically, it will likely take more than a few extra minutes to achieve additional health boosts.
Intensity and duration matter
All exercise isn’t equal, either. Sprinting at all-out intensity for five minutes will have a different effect on your body than taking a leisurely five-minute stroll.
That’s not to say light or moderate activity isn’t beneficial. In the London Transport Workers Study, which began in the 1940s, researchers found that train conductors had lower rates of coronary heart disease than drivers, seemingly because they had more active jobs. Those results—and many studies performed in the decades since—suggest that even moderate activity that might not be consider traditional “exercise,” like housework or walking, can have a positive impact.
But intensity does matter, especially if you’re only moving for a short time. Compared to more moderate activities, vigorous moves that get the heart pumping, like running or doing jumping jacks, more efficiently trigger physical benefits, Carter says. Two of the strongest exercise-related predictors of longevity—grip strength and aerobic capacity—may improve modestly after short workouts, but likely take longer, more intense bouts of movement to improve significantly, Murach says. Large studies have shown that the benefits of exercise compound as you do more, so there’s no reason to stop at a few minutes if you have the time and ability to continue.
The good news is that activity is both variable and scalable. Your vigorous workout may be someone else’s light workout—but as long as your heart rate is up and your breathing is a bit labored, you’re doing your body good, Carter says. You can also build intensity over time, research suggests. Perhaps you start by taking short walks a few times a day, then ramp up to more vigorous movement, done for longer stretches, as you get stronger, Blue says.
The takeaway is that some exercise is always better than none, and every additional bit adds up.
“It’s pretty shocking, the amount of health benefit you can get from even short little bouts of exercise,” Murach agrees. “It may not be the thing that makes you lose 30 pounds, but it can improve your health in some capacity—your physiological health as well as your mental health.”
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Contributor: Jamie Ducharme