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When Americans were asked in a 2021 survey what their excuses were for not exercising, their top answer was, “I don’t have enough time.”
This probably comes as no surprise. After all, the recommended amount of exercise for optimal health is 150 minutes (or 2½ hours) of moderate physical activity every week. Even if you break that down, it’s still 30 minutes five times a week. And if you have to go to the gym to exercise, that adds even more time.
It’s a tough ask for people with jobs, kids, pets and houses to take care of. That’s why researchers have been working overtime to try to find out whether smaller amounts of exercise can make a positive impact on health….
Even half that amount helps
A team led by researchers at the University of Cambridge decided to explore the amount of physical activity necessary to have a positive effect on several chronic diseases and premature death.
The team reviewed results reported in 196 peer-reviewed articles covering more than 30 million participants. This produced the largest analysis to date of the association between physical activity levels and risk of heart disease, cancer and early death.
Outside of work-related physical activity, 2 out of 3 people reported activity levels below the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity. Fewer than 1 in 10 managed more than 300 minutes per week.
The researchers found that going beyond the recommended 150 minutes per week had only marginal additional benefits. However, even doing just half the recommended amount of weekly moderate activity lowered risk of early death by 23 percent.
Doing 75 minutes a week, or 11 minutes a day, of moderate activity also was enough to cause a 17 percent decline in cardiovascular disease risk and a 7 percent drop in cancer risk.
The risk reduction was even greater for certain types of cancers. The risk of head and neck, myeloid leukemia, myeloma and gastric cardia cancers declined by between 14 and 26 percent. And for lung, liver, endometrial, colon and breast cancers, risk was lowered by between 3 and 11 percent.
What all this means, according to the researchers, is this. If everyone could manage at least 75 minutes a week of moderate physical activity, it could prevent 1 in 10 early deaths, 1 in 20 cases of cardiovascular disease and 1 in 30 cases of cancer.
If everyone raised that to 150 minutes a week, the researchers calculated that it would prevent around 1 in 6 early deaths, 1 in 9 cases of cardiovascular disease and 1 in 20 cases of cancer.
“If you are someone who finds the idea of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week a bit daunting, then our findings should be good news,” says Dr. Soren Brage of the University of Cambridge. “Doing some physical activity is better than doing none.”
Brage adds that once 75 minutes a week is embedded into your routine, you could try gradually stepping it up to the full recommended amount of 150 minutes.
What constitutes moderate?
As for what the researchers mean by moderate activity, they say even a brisk walk counts. So does dancing, riding a bike, playing tennis and hiking, among other activities.
The key is to do any exercise that raises your heart rate and makes you breathe faster, but still allows you to speak during the activity.
“Moderate activity doesn’t have to involve what we normally think of exercise, such as sports or running,” observes Dr. Leandro Garcia from Queen’s University in Belfast. “Sometimes, replacing some habits is all that is needed.”
Garcia suggests trying to walk or cycle to your place of work or study instead of using a car, or engaging in active play with your kids or grandkids. “Doing activities that you enjoy and that are easy to include in your weekly routine is an excellent way to become more active,” he says.
If even 11 minutes a day seems like a lot, think of it this way: it’s about the same amount of time it takes you to drink your morning cup of coffee. When you look at it that way, it feels more doable.
Or you can do what I like to do and break that 11 minutes down even further into what some call “exercise snacks.” Sprinkling these brief exercise breaks throughout the day can make the task of hitting 75 minutes a week seem like no effort at all.
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Daily 11 minute brisk walk enough to reduce risk of early death — University of Cambridge