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Why Quick Bursts of Vigorous Activity Are a Game-Changer

Short bouts of high-intensity exercise can save time and boost longevity.

Key points

  • New research on exercise intensity, morbidity, and longevity tests the epidemiological wisdom of Aesop's "The Tortoise and the Hare" fable.
  • According to the fable, slow and steady wins the race. But research suggests that shorter and faster bursts of exercise can help us live longer.
  • One two-minute burst of vigorous activity per day is associated with significantly less heart disease and increased longevity.
Maridav/Shutterstock
Source: Maridav/Shutterstock

Although doing any intensity of physical activity is better than doing none, accumulating evidence suggests that vigorous exercise at a higher intensity gives us more bang for the buck than easy, lower-intensity workouts—in half the time or less.

For example, a recent study (Dempsey et al., 2022) found that an ambling 14-minute stroll has roughly the same cardiovascular benefits as an uptempo seven-minute walk at a brisk pace. This study included 88,412 older adults with a mean age of 62. On average, participants' weekly exercise habits were tracked for 6.8 years.

"Our study shows that it's not just the amount of activity, but also the intensity, that is important for cardiovascular health," first author Paddy Dempsey said in an October 2022 news release. "Increasing the total volume of physical activity is not the only way to reduce the likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease. Raising the intensity was also particularly important, while increasing both was optimal."

Quick Bouts of Vigorous Exercise Increase Longevity in Less Time

Another new study (Ahmadi et al., 2022) on the benefits of short bouts of physical activity found that quick bursts of vigorous physical activity throughout the day can lower older adults' risk of premature death by 16% to 27%, depending on daily frequency and weekly totals.

For example, doing one two-minute burst of high-intensity exercise every day for a total of 14 minutes per week was associated with about an 18% lower risk of all-cause mortality (death from any cause). Matthew Ahmadi and colleagues also found that doing as little as one to nine minutes per week of vigorous activity in quick bursts versus doing zero vigorous activity was associated with significantly lower all-cause mortality risk over five years.

This study involved 71,893 older adults with a mean age of 62.5. The researchers tracked the total amount of weekly physical activity and focused on the frequency of vigorous bursts of exercise lasting two minutes or less. On average, participants were followed for 6.9 years.

"The results indicate that accumulating vigorous activity in short bouts across the week can help us live longer," Ahmadi explains. "Given that lack of time is the most commonly reported barrier to regular physical activity, accruing small amounts sporadically during the day may be a particularly attractive option for busy people."

Both of these studies on the benefits of shorter bouts of vigorous activity at a higher intensity used data from the U.K. Biobank database and were published in the Oct. 27, 2022, issue of the peer-reviewed European Heart Journal.

More Research Is Needed to Pinpoint Optimal Exercise Intensities at Different Stages of Life

In an accompanying EHJ editorial, Charles Matthews and Pedro Saint-Maurice reflect on Aesop's "The Tortoise and the Hare" fable as a metaphor that symbolizes epidemiological differences between slower, low-intensity exercise and faster, high-intensity physical activity.

"Current physical activity recommendations are predicated on the idea that both the hare and the tortoise can win the race for better health, but the provocative studies in this issue of the European Heart Journal give an edge to the hare's higher-intensity approach," they write.

Notably, Matthews and Saint-Maurice identify some limitations to the latest (2022) research on the benefits of shorter bouts of higher-intensity exercise published in the EHJ. Because both studies focused solely on a cohort of older adults (aged 40 to 69) with a mean age of about 62, their editorial notes that more research is needed to "examine the consistency of these new findings in other study populations."

Disclaimer: This post is not intended as medical advice. If vigorous physical activity isn't part of your daily routine, consult a health care provider and discuss any potential risks associated with doing short bouts of high-intensity exercise based on your medical history before making lifestyle changes.

References

Paddy C. Dempsey, Alex V. Rowlands, Tessa Strain, Francesco Zaccardi, Nathan Dawkins, Cameron Razieh, Melanie J. Davies, Kamlesh K. Khunti, Charlotte L. Edwardson, Katrien Wijndaele, Soren Brage, Tom Yates. "Physical Activity Volume, Intensity and Incident Cardiovascular Disease." European Heart Journal (First published: October 27, 2022) DOI: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehac613

Matthew N. Ahmadi, Philip J. Clare, Peter T. Katzmarzyk, Borja del Pozo Cruz, I-Min Lee, Emmanuel Stamatakis. "Vigorous Physical Activity, Incident Heart Disease, and Cancer: How Little Is Enough?" European Heart Journal (First published: October 27, 2022) DOI: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehac572

Editorial by Charles E. Matthews and Pedro F. Saint-Maurice. "The Hare and the Tortoise: Physical Activity Intensity and Scientific Translation." European Heart Journal (First published: October 27, 2022) DOI: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehac626

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