Health experts spend a lot of time trying to get folks to the gym. But here’s the thing: Many people hate gyms. So what’s a gal to do if she doesn’t like the gym but still wants to stay active?
Turns out, gardening, dancing, or going for a walk do the trick. All of these activities, according to a new study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, can reduce your mortality risk. And it only takes 10 minutes a week.
The study looked at 88,140 American adults, who were all between 40 and 85 years to begin with. Every participant was asked to report what kind of physical activity they did, and for how many minutes per day or week, as part of the National Health Interview Survey. Minutes running or cycling or participating in some kind of competitive sport (among many others) were all classified as vigorous activity time, while everything from a brisk walk to dancing or gardening was deemed light or moderate physical activity. Then the researchers followed those people for 12 years, through 2009, to see what happened to them. How many died of cancer? How many of heart disease? How many were still alive?
What they ended up with was a massive database of exactly how much exercise people get per week and how (or whether) those people had passed away. Of course, some factors are associated with exercise that might skew these results. Folks who exercise more vigorously and for more minutes per week tend to be younger, whiter, and male. They’re more likely to be married, to not be a smoker, and to drink less. So the researchers controlled for all those variables (that’s not a perfect process, but it does decrease the overall bias substantially).
Most of the participants in the study didn’t actually exercise at all. These abstainers served as the control group (anyone with a chronic disease was excluded, since that would make the controls unusually unhealthy in comparison to everyone else). Compared to those folks, people who did light physical activity anywhere from 10 to 59 minutes a week had a 19 percent lower overall risk of mortality. Doing this light activity for more minutes didn’t help a ton with the overall mortality risk. The group that exercised for 60 to 149 minutes only got down to 22 percent lower risk, and the lowest it got for light exercisers was 26 percent for those working out 300-599 minutes a week. Doing increasing amounts of vigorous exercise, however, did seem to help: working out for 10 to 59 minutes strenuously got the risk down by 26 percent, peaking at 34 percent for those getting the recommended 150-plus minutes each week.
But all these effects were magnified when the researchers focused just on cardiovascular disease deaths. Regular exercise is, as you probably already know, tightly tied to a healthier cardiovascular system, in part because it helps your heart regenerate new cells. Getting the recommended 150 minutes of light to moderate exercise per week brought mortality risk for CVD down by 31 percent, but as little as 10 to 59 minutes got you down by 16 percent. Vigorous exercise worked even better: those 15 or so minutes reduced CVD risk by 26 percent, and getting 150 minutes got you down to 33 percent reduced risk.
As the authors point out, though, the fact that there are significant benefits with very little weekly activity should motivate us to get active in any way we can. It doesn’t have to be high-intensity interval training (though if you like it, it provides excellent cardiovascular benefits plus fat loss in very little time). It could be dancing around your home while cleaning for an hour each week, gardening on the weekends, or simply walking home from work instead of taking the bus. More than half of all Americans don’t get the recommended exercise, so rather than shoot straight for 150 full minutes of moderate-intensity activity, start small. Begin with something you’ll enjoy—it’s never too late to get moving.