- Just 11 minutes of exercise each day can help people avoid an early death, and help prevent heart disease, stroke, and some cancers.
- Benefits increased with time spent exercising, with 150 weekly minutes, or 30 daily minutes showing even greater results.
- If 150 minutes of exercise each week seems daunting, even small amounts of movement can improve health outcomes.
As few as 11 minutes of daily exercise can substantially reduce a person’s risk of early death, and help prevent heart disease, stroke, and some cancers, in comparison to being sedentary, new research found.
The study—published last month in the British Journal of Sports Medicine—reviewed data from 196 published articles in order to draw broader conclusions about the impact of exercise on health. They found that one in ten premature deaths could be prevented if people exercised for 75 minutes per week, or 11 minutes per day.
The results were even better for those who exercised for 150 minutes weekly, or 30 minutes daily, five times a week. Nearly 16% of all premature deaths could have been avoided if sedentary people had achieved this metric, the review said.
“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,” study co-author Soren Brage, PhD, said in a press release. “Doing some physical activity is better than doing none.”
Exercise’s Impact on Cancer and Cardiovascular Disease Risks
The study included data from 94 cohorts which totaled over 30 million participants, allowing researchers to apply the findings widely. Higher activity levels were associated with lower mortality risks, the study found.
People who did 75 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise each week were 17% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease and 7% less likely to develop cancer, as compared to those who were sedentary.
And the benefits increased as people exercised more—those who exercised for 150 minutes per week saw a 27% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 12% lower risk of cancer incidence. The researchers also found that exercise had a bigger impact on certain types of cancers—exercise reduced the risk of head and neck, myeloid leukemia, myeloma, and gastric cardia cancers more so than it did for lung, liver, endometrial, colon, and breast cancers.
These benefits started to plateau, however, as the amount of weekly physical activity continued to increase. Exercising between 150 and 300 minutes each week only had small benefits, and any difference in exercising for more than 300 minutes weekly was “uncertain,” researchers said.
“What you see is a flattening of the curve. So it’s sort of like the law of diminishing returns,” Cari Levy, MD, PhD, division head of geriatric medicine and director of the Multidisciplinary Center on Aging at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, told Health. “That all-cause mortality curve, it continues to go down. But it’s just not at the steep slope you see at the beginning.”
These findings offer broad suggestions about how much exercise people need in general, but the idea that routine exercise can prolong people’s lives is not a new one, said Dr. Levy.
This review confirms findings from many other studies that have been published recently—one study found that higher levels of exercise were associated with lower rates of hospitalization for certain conditions, such as diabetes and stroke.3 Another found that over 100,000 yearly deaths could be prevented if people committed to adding just 10 minutes of exercise to their daily routines.
Why Does Exercise Have So Many Health Benefits?
It’s important to note that the study only pointed to an association between exercise and mortality risk, said Adam Skolnick, MD, associate professor of medicine in the division of cardiology at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Sedentary people seem to have worse health outcomes, but there could be other factors beyond a lack of exercise that are playing a role, he explained.
Though we can’t say for sure that exercise is the primary cause of these health benefits, more exercise is still associated with better fitness and overall health, explained Erik Willis, PhD, research scientist at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.
“From a short bout of exercise—there’s immediate benefits—all the way to the chronic, long term adaptations and fitness changes,” Willis told Health. “If there was a way to make exercise a pill, it would be the magic pill for so many things.”
Exercise helps lower inflammation in the body, decreases fat tissue, and helps with hormone regulation and sleep—all of these things in tandem keeps a person healthier, Willis said.
Physical activity also greatly improves a person’s quality of life too, he added. People who exercise may feel less stressed, depressed, or anxious, and may feel more confident or energized.
For heart disease and stroke risk specifically, Dr. Levy said, more frequent exercise puts the cardiovascular system to use, which keeps blood vessels in the practice of contracting and relaxing. This may help stave off elevated blood pressure and cardiovascular issues, she explained.
Exercising is also an important part of preventing cancer, as it lowers inflammation and improves the immune system, among other things.5 But it’s also likely that those who exercise regularly live healthier lifestyles in general, Dr Levy said. They may avoid smoking or may socialize with friends while they exercise, she explained, which also improves health outcomes.
Exercising to Achieve the Greatest Health Benefits
Even before the publication of this study, the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommended that adults get at least 150 minutes per week of exercise in order to maintain optimal health.
More specifically, people should engage in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, which simply means they should do activities that raise the heart rate and make them sweat.
“One need not be a marathon runner or go to a gym to improve heart health and reduce the risk of cancer,” Dr. Skolnick told Health. “Even everyday activity and any purposeful movement is associated with improved health outcomes.”
And if 150 minutes seems like too much, even small amounts of movement can improve health outcomes. Small bouts of exercise can help reduce blood glucose, similar to the body’s response to insulin, Willis said. Plus, simple exercises, such as walking, can be especially great in helping older people maintain leg strength, balance, and endurance as they age, Dr. Skolnick added.
Of course, there are additional fitness benefits to exercising more than two and a half hours weekly, Willis and Dr. Skolnick said. Though 150 minutes weekly is a good goal, fitness looks different depending on each person’s lifestyle, age, and other factors.
“On an individual level, it’s always going to vary,” Willis said. “But I think it’s still a general good guideline to move more.”
Incorporating Exercise Into Our Daily Routines
Even though experts recommend finding more creative ways to incorporate moderate-to-vigorous exercise into your daily routine, it’s still true that finding time and space for physical activity isn’t always simple.
It can be challenging for people to find time in their schedules to move, Willis explained, especially if they’re working multiple jobs. Working from home or being confined to an office isn’t conducive to frequent movement, either.
Outside of work, many people may not have access to sidewalks, bike lanes, and spaces for movement in many parts of the U.S., Willis said, especially if they have a disability.
“A lot of blame gets put on the individual for not being active or eating healthy,” he said. “But if we can’t change these larger systems to make it easier for people to do that, it’s going to be really difficult.”
Despite the obstacles, there are things people can do to make exercising a bit easier.
“People aren’t going to do what they don’t enjoy for very long,” Dr. Levy said. “Do what you love to do, and move while doing it, is my advice. So if you love to talk to people, then say, ‘Let’s go on a walk while we chat.’ If you love to watch TV, then do some marching in place while watching TV.”
Physical activity may also be easier if people work it into their schedules, find a partner to move with, and work their way up to more challenging activities.
Exercising is never easy, and two and a half hours weekly may seem difficult to accomplish, especially if someone is facing barriers to getting the movement they need. But reframing the definition of exercise to include a wider variety of activities may be a starting point.
“The message that we want to get across is just get people to start moving,” Willis said. “It doesn’t have to be [these] traditional methods of exercise. We’ve just got to figure out ways to make it easier for people to move and find things that they enjoy.”