Taking the stairs rather than an elevator. Raking leaves. Toting heavy grocery bags. Pushing a vacuum. Playing hard with your kids or pets.

Short bursts of vigorous physical activity during everyday events like these — most lasting less than a minute — can help lower cancer risk even in people who don’t like to exercise, a new study finds.

People who got around 3.5 minutes of vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity (VILPA) each day reduced their overall cancer risk by about 18%, said researcher Emmanuel Stamatakis, a professor of physical activity, lifestyle and population health at the University of Sydney in Australia.

More minutes produced even more cancer protection, particularly for cancers already known to respond well to physical activity.

“For people who find it hard to initiate or adhere to an exercise program, our study suggests that doing a few short bursts of intense activity as the day goes by may be beneficial for long-term health,” Stamatakis said.

The study, published online July 27 in JAMA Oncology, showed that non-exercisers can still benefit from getting off the couch throughout the day, said Erika Rees-Punia, a senior principal scientist of epidemiology and behavioral research with the American Cancer Society.

“We often say that something is better than nothing in terms of physical activity, and this is really more evidence for that,” Rees-Punia said. “It turns out that could even include super-short bursts of high-intensity movement that you just incorporate into your day anytime, anywhere. That’s really exciting, especially for people who maybe have absolutely no interest in starting an exercise program.”

For this study, Stamatakis and his colleagues used wearable devices to track the daily activity of more than 22,000 residents of the United Kingdom who told researchers they don’t care to exercise.

Even folks who don’t exercise are still likely to get some amount of physical activity during their day, simply by living their lives, Rees-Punia noted.

“All exercise is physical activity, but not all physical activity is exercise,” Rees-Punia said. “Physical activity can involve things you’d be doing anyway — moving about, but not necessarily to improve your health or fitness.”

The researchers followed the group’s health records for nearly seven years to monitor for cancer.

About half the participants managed at least 4.5 minutes of vigorous activity a day, Stamatakis said.

“Doing 4.5 minutes per day of vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity was associated with a 20% to 21% reduction in total cancer risk,” Stamatakis said.

People benefited even more when it came to physical activity-related cancers such as breast, lung and colon cancers, he added.

“For example, at a minimum dose of 3.5 minutes per day, physical activity-related cancer risk was reduced by 28% to 29%,” he said. “At 4.5 minutes per day physical activity-related cancer risk was reduced by 31% to 32%.”

People can tell if they are racking up VILPA minutes by paying attention to their bodies, Stamatakis said. If they get out of breath and their heart rate jumps, it’s a good sign that the activity is vigorous enough to count.

“The general principle is that if we sing while doing, the activity is of light intensity. If we can speak but not sing, it is of moderate intensity. If we can hardly speak more than a few words, we are hitting the vigorous intensity zone,” Stamatakis said. “This is high-quality movement which likely has a great health-enhancing potential if repeated regularly.”

Even short bursts of activity could cause improvements in insulin resistance and chronic inflammation, both of which are major risks for cancer, he noted.

However, Stamatakis and other cancer experts warned that these results shouldn’t be an excuse for active people to give up on exercise.

“People who exercise regularly are not even included in the study,” Rees-Punia explained. “It’s very likely if they did include exercisers in the study and compared them to folks who weren’t getting any exercise but were getting some VILPA, they probably would see that the people who exercised had a lower risk of cancer even still.”

American Society of Clinical Oncology expert Dr. Eleonora Teplinsky agreed, adding that this sort of observational study can’t prove a definite cause-and-effect relationship.

“Based on other studies that show that increasing the amount of physical activity further decreases the risk, absolutely we know that more is going to help,” said Teplinsky, head of breast and gynecologic medical oncology at Valley Health System in Paramus, N.J. “But I think recommending very high amounts of activity sometimes either is difficult for people to start or difficult to maintain.”

Short bursts of vigorous activity “can be a good place to start for patients, and it also speaks to the fact that movement throughout the day is very important,” Teplinsky added. “This can be a really good stepping-stone for patients who are trying to get more movement into their day.”

More information

The U.S. National Cancer Institute has more about physical activity and cancer risk.

SOURCES: Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD, professor, physical activity, lifestyle and population health, University of Sydney, Australia; Erika Rees-Punia, PhD, MPH, senior principal scientist, epidemiology and behavioral research, American Cancer Society; Eleonora Teplinsky, MD, head of breast and gynecologic medical oncology, Valley Health System, Paramus, N.J.; JAMA Oncology, July 27, 2023, online