Even brief amounts of exercise have health benefits

Walking outside together

Dear Doctors: I heard on the news about research that associates walking every day with living a longer life. Both of my grandfathers are avid walkers. They never miss a day, no matter what, and both of them are well into their 80s. I would like to know more, and also how this research was done.

Dear Reader: We believe you are referring to a study that was recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The researchers concluded that if you spend at least 11 minutes each day engaged in physical activity at a moderate level of intensity, it can lower the risk of death by close to 25%. A brisk walk falls into that category. So does any kind of movement that raises your heart rate enough for chatting to become difficult.

The link between regular physical activity and a wide range of health benefits is well-established. Of particular note is the fact that, by exercising regularly, you can reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. That’s significant because cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. The statistics are pretty grim. In 2020, about 697,000 people in the U.S. died from heart disease. That’s 20% of all deaths. Stroke is another result of cardiovascular disease. About 795,000 people have a stroke every year, and nearly one-fourth of them don’t survive.

This research doesn’t break new ground by linking exercise to a healthier life. However, it is notable for several reasons. One is its sheer scope. The findings are drawn from the health data of more than 30 million participants, making it perhaps the largest study to date into this particular topic. The researchers arrived at this large number by pooling and analyzing health data collected in 94 previous large studies.

Another intriguing result is the brevity of the duration of exercise the study pegs as the tipping point at which positive results become evident. The analysis shows that at 75 minutes per week, which translates to just under 11 minutes per day, positive health results became statistically significant.

In addition to a lower risk of death, the researchers saw a 17% reduction in the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and a 7% reduction in the risk of certain cancers. Interestingly, there was a large drop of between 14% and 26% in the risk of developing gastric cancers.

At this time, exercise recommendations for healthy adults in the U.S. weigh in at a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate activity per week, or just over 20 minutes per day. For kids and teens, it’s one hour per day. Unfortunately, and perhaps not all that surprisingly, fewer than half of us meet that standard.

While this new study doesn’t supplant the current recommendations, it does suggest that at least aiming for that goal is beneficial. The findings also add to an emerging body of research that links even brief periods of exercise to measurable health benefits. They also suggest that by walking every day, your grandfathers have the right idea.

(Send your questions to [email protected], or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1955, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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Talk to your primary care provider to identify healthy fitness goals and determine the best cardiovascular exercise for you.