Good news for couch potatoes — bursts of activity as short as one to three minutes in duration can prompt a steep decrease in the risk of heart attack, stroke and early death, a new study reports.

Researchers tracked the activity of more than 25,000 people in the United Kingdom, all of whom had wearable devices that monitored their movement down to 10-second intervals.

The investigators found that short bouts of activity lasting fewer than 10 minutes caused a significant decrease in heart attacks and strokes, as well as death from any cause.

These weren’t activities where someone needed to don sportswear and athletic shoes, either, said lead researcher Matthew Ahmadi, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sydney in Australia.

“The health-enhancing benefits they received all came from activities of daily living such as playing with children, gardening and household tasks that mixed in short bursts of vigorous intensity,” Ahmadi said.

“Our study found that the health benefits traditionally attributed to exercise-based activities can also be achieved through everyday activities. This was a nice finding, particularly for adults who are unable to or cannot exercise regularly,” he said.

Although even short bursts of activity produced benefit, the longer the bouts, the better off participants were, the researchers found.

Compared to people who only moved in bouts of one minute or less:

  • People who regularly moved 5 to 10 minutes had a 52% reduced risk of early death and a 41% reduced risk of heart attack and stroke.
  • Those who regularly moved 3 to 5 minutes had a 44% reduced risk of early death and a 38% reduced risk of heart attack and stroke.
  • Folks who moved 1 to 3 minutes were 34% less likely to die early and 29% less likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke.

The intensity of the activity did matter, the findings showed.

People who huffed and puffed with vigorous activity for at least 15% of each bout — about 10 seconds per minute — saw the greatest benefit, according to the report.

Even bouts of activity of less than a minute were associated with health benefits if they contained 15% or more vigorous movement, the researchers said.

“People don’t need to necessarily do short bursts of activity that are only vigorous. As long as they are able to do their daily activities in bursts with a little extra effort or pace lasting a few minutes at a time they can get health benefits,” Ahmadi said. “And then if they want to top it off and get more ‘bang for their buck,’ they can also do them at a high effort to get that vigorous intensity.”

Fewer than 1 in 5 middle-aged adults regularly exercise, the authors said in background notes.

For the study, Ahmadi’s team analyzed data from 25,241 adults who were part of a long-term U.K. health study. The researchers focused specifically on people who said they don’t exercise in their leisure time.

Ahmadi said the results seen are likely due to the heart-healthy benefits of any kind of activity.

“These short bursts of activity done at moderate or vigorous intensity are likely leading to cardioprotective adaptations, such as improved blood pressure, blood sugar control, strengthening our heart muscle and reducing our body’s oxidative stress,” he said.

Dr. Catherine Benziger, a member of the American College of Cardiology’s Prevention Council, agreed that the results show that “any amount of exercise is good for your heart.”

“People often think they have to go out and buy all this fancy equipment to play pickleball or go for run, and it’s really not that hard,” said Benziger, director of research at Essentia Health Heart and Vascular Center in Duluth, Minn. “It does not require any equipment to dance, to garden, to walk your dog. People just need to get out the front door, get outside.”

Technology often leads people to sit around, staring at screens, and it’s a temptation that must be resisted, she said.

“Moving more, sitting less is the name of the game,” Benziger said. “Dance to a song while you’re cleaning. During commercial breaks of a television show, get up and move around. That would be, I think, classified as this kind of movement that they’re talking about.”

Once someone is up and moving, they can then gradually extend their bouts of activity if they want to further improve their health, Benziger added.

The findings were published in the October issue of The Lancet Public Health.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about the health benefits of movement.

SOURCES: Matthew Ahmadi, PhD, postdoctoral research fellow, University of Sydney, Australia; Catherine Benziger, MD, MPH, director of research, Essentia Health Heart and Vascular Center, Duluth, Minn.; The Lancet Public Health, October 2023