You May Need Less Daily Activity to Help You Live Longer Than You Think

people doing tai chi exercises

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Key Takeaways

  • Walking briskly for just 11 minutes per day could help you live longer, according to a recent study.
  • More activity is better, the researchers suggest, but even a minimum amount can counteract the harmful effects of too much sitting.
  • Other recent research also highlights that short exercise bouts can have a significant effect, especially for metabolic health.

A breadth of research has found numerous benefits from regular exercise, and now a new study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests you don’t need much to improve your odds for a longer life.

Current U.S. physical activity recommendations suggest at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week to counteract the effects of sedentary behavior, but the recent research finds just half that amount—about 11 minutes per day—could still have major benefits.

Move More, Sit Less

The recent research was a meta-analysis that looked at nine cohort studies from four countries, involved over 44,000 men and women, and spanned 14 years.

Researchers compared the average time spent sedentary compared to daily activity, and how many participants had died within the study timeframe. They concluded that those who had the lowest activity also had the greatest risk of death.

Those 11 minutes made an impact, but more was even better, they noted: About 30-40 minutes of moderate daily activity tended to show the lowest mortality risk within that 14-year span.

In addition to exercising less than you might think, it’s also possible that intensity doesn’t make as much of a difference either.

A previous study led by the same researchers, which combined data from eight studies in the U.S., Scandinavia, and the U.K., involved more than 36,000 participants. Tracking daily activity for six years, they found strong associations between total physical activity and the risk of dying. This was irrespective of the intensity of the activity, researchers noted.

Short Bouts, Big Benefits

One reason that any activity is beneficial is that it simply decreases the amount that you sit or lounge. Sedentary behavior has been linked to a number of issues, including:

  • Increased risk of heart disease
  • Higher risk of diabetes
  • Weight gain
  • Higher prevalence of some cancers
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Slower metabolism
  • More back pain
  • Mood issues
  • Improper alignment and poor posture

Even a few breaks of less-sedentary time can improve your metabolic health, according to Gregory Lewis, MD, section head of heart failure at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Brief bouts of exercise result in favorable changes in the level of circulating small molecules, called metabolites, that are associated with health status,” he says. “Among the metabolites that are measurable in our blood, more than 85% change significantly in response to about 12 minutes of exercise.”

This includes metabolites like glucose, creatinine, and uric acid, for example—which all play a role in functions like blood pressure responses, blood sugar regulation, breathing efficiency, and physical endurance, says Lewis. They’re critically important for cardiovascular health, he adds, and measurement of some of the metabolites can predict future cardiovascular disease and mortality.

“We don’t know exactly how much exercise is required to trigger beneficial changes, but from what we’ve seen, it doesn’t take much,” he says.

Every Movement Counts

As the recent study emphasized, you don’t need to schedule an exercise session or do an online class for the activity to “count” toward a daily total. Often, simply doing more of certain everyday tasks can all add up, previous research has found.

I-Min Lee, MD

[Studies] really do show that all activity is helpful, not just higher-intensity activity done in bouts of least 10 minute sessions. The message we’re getting from research is simply to move more, and move often.

— I-Min Lee, MD

For example, a 2019 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine looked at just over 1,500 men who first supplied health and behavior information in the late 1970s, and then again in 2016. Researchers examined the connections between sedentary behavior, different intensities of physical activity, and risk of early mortality. They outfitted the participants with fitness devices that recorded activity intensity and duration per day for at least three days.

Those in the study who achieved their 150 minutes of weekly activity in bouts lasting longer than 10 minutes weren’t significantly better off than those who got to that 150 through much shorter amounts of time.

When it came to lower mortality risk and physical activity intensity, there wasn’t much difference, according to study co-author I-Min Lee, MD, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“Our study, and the ones that have come afterward, really do show that all activity is helpful, not just higher-intensity activity done in bouts of least 10 minute sessions,” she says. “The message we’re getting from research is simply to move more, and move often.”

What This Means For You

While it's important to get as close as possible to the recommended amount of weekly exercise, which means 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, it's also helpful to remember that all activity counts. Even light exercise like walking and housework can help to decrease the risks of sedentary time.

3 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ekelund U, Tarp J, Fagerland MW, et al Joint associations of accelero-meter measured physical activity and sedentary time with all-cause mortality: a harmonised meta-analysis in more than 44 000 middle-aged and older individuals British Journal of Sports Medicine 2020;54:1499-1506. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2020-103270

  2. Ekelund U, Tarp J, Steene-Johannessen J, Hansen BH, Jefferis B, Fagerland MW et al. Dose-response associations between accelerometry measured physical activity and sedentary time and all cause mortality: systematic review and harmonised meta-analysis BMJ 2019; 366 :l4570 doi:10.1136/bmj.l4570

  3. Jefferis BJ, Parsons TJ, Sartini C, et al Objectively measured physical activity, sedentary behaviour and all-cause mortality in older men: does volume of activity matter more than pattern of accumulation? British Journal of Sports Medicine 2019;53:1013-1020. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2017-098733

By Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition.