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Man running for a bus

In the first ever study to measure the benefits of vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity, or ‘VILPA’, an international team of researchers have found that three–four short bursts of activity every day can reduce a person’s risk of death from any cause by up to 39%. Additionally, a person’s risk of dying from cardiovascular disease could be reduced by up to 49%. The results are published today in Nature Medicine.

VILPA is very short bouts (between one and two minutes) of vigorous physical activity that we do as part of our everyday lives, such as bursts of power walking while doing errands or walking up the stairs.

The researchers, including Professor Aiden Doherty from the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute, used wrist-worn tracker data from 25,241 participants collected by the UK Biobank who were considered ‘non-exercisers’, meaning that they self-reported that they do not do any sports or exercise during leisure time. This meant that researchers could conclude that any VILPA recorded by this group was done as part of everyday living. The team then accessed health data that allowed them to follow participants over seven years.

Key findings:

  • Three–four one-minute bouts of VILPA per day is associated with up to a 39% reduction in risk of all-cause and cancer-related mortality, and up to 49% reduction in risk of death related to cardiovascular disease;
  • The most significant gains in terms of lowering risk of death were associated with around four–five bouts of VILPA per day when compared to no VILPA;
  • Larger benefits were found with larger amounts of VILPA, suggesting the more the better;
  • The maximum of 11 bouts of VILPA per day was associated with a 65% reduction in risk of death from cardiovascular disease and 49% reduction in risk of death from cancer, when compared to no VILPA.

The findings were then replicated in a comparative analysis of the vigorous activity of 62,000 UK Biobank participants who regularly engaged in exercise. This implies that whether the vigorous activity is done as part of structured exercise or housework does not compromise the health benefits. However, the results are part of an observational study, meaning that they cannot directly establish cause and effect. To mitigate against this, the researchers undertook rigorous statistical measures to minimise the possibility that the results are explained by differences in health status between participants.

Aiden Doherty, Professor of Biomedical Informatics at Oxford Population Health and the Big Data Institute said ‘The use of wearable sensor measurements in large-scale epidemiological cohorts such as the UK Biobank is beginning to transform our understanding of how movement behaviours are associated with major disease outcomes. This study beautifully shows that people who perform very short bouts of vigorous activity live longer.’

The international team led by the University of Sydney, and including researchers from the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute, University College London, University of Glasgow, University of Southern Denmark and McMaster University are calling for physical activity guidelines and clinical advice to be updated to keep pace with this evolving area of research.

Current global guidelines imply that the health benefits of vigorous-intensity physical activity are gained through structured physical activity such as sport or running during leisure time, although the WHO Global Guidelines on Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour acknowledge that ‘all activity counts’ and the stipulation that activity should be accumulated in 10-minute bouts was removed.