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An extra 20 minutes of physical activity a day may help prevent hospitalizations

Activities like walking, jogging, swimming and cycling may help keep you out of the hospital for a variety of reasons, new research shows.
/ Source: TODAY

Getting regular physical exercise is one of the best things you can do for your health. But you don't have to spend hours at the gym to get one of the biggest potential benefits.

New research suggests that just adding 20 minutes of physical activity to your day can significantly reduce the risk of being hospitalized for a variety of serious medical conditions.

The study, published today in JAMA Network Open, analyzed data for more than 81,000 people between the ages of 42 and 78 from the ongoing U.K. Biobank study. All of the participants wore an activity tracker for seven days. The researchers then used a statistical model to categorize the types of activities the participants engaged in and the amount of time they spent on each activity.

Their results showed that those who got more physical activity overall had a lower risk for hospitalization for nine conditions, including diabetes, gallbladder disease, blood clots, urinary tract infections and more.

When the researchers used modeling techniques to substitute 20 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for sedentary behavior, they found a significant potential reduction in hospitalizations, as well. That was particularly true for hospitalizations associated with diabetes, gallbladder disease, pneumonia, gastroesophageal reflux disease and iron deficiency anemia.

Overall, the results suggest "aiming to increase moderate to vigorous physical activity by just 20 minutes a day is a really effective strategy to reduce risk of hospitalization across an incredibly broad range of conditions," lead study author Eleanor L. Watts, Ph.D., tells

Why is exercise so beneficial for managing such a variety of health conditions? “It does seem that physical activity really affects a broad range of systems like inflammation, immune system function, reducing body fat and reducing hypotension,” says Watts, who is a postdoctoral fellow at the metabolic epidemiology branch of the National Cancer Institute.

It's important to note that moderate-to-vigorous physical activity in the study didn't necessarily mean high-impact exercise; it included everything from walking the dog to jogging to cycling to swimming. The study authors note that future research should focus on figuring out the impact of different types of exercise (high-intensity cardio versus strength training, for instance).

There are some limitations to the study. For example, 97% of the participants identified as white, meaning it's challenging to know how much the results would apply to other groups. But other research has shown that "under the guidance of a physician, physical activity seems to be really broadly beneficial" across race, ethnicity and age, Watts says.

Additionally, the accelerometers used to track activity in this study "aren't good at picking up things like weightlifting," Watts says. So it's possible that the data could have missed activity readings from people who engaged in those activities.

Also, remember that the study only looked at correlations with hospitalization, not whether physical activity could prevent the development of health conditions entirely.

"It might just represent better disease management," Watts says. "That just wasn't the scope of this study."

And because the study is only looking at correlations between activity and hospitalizations, it's impossible to say whether or not the exercise directly affected participants' outcomes, Watts explains.

But, in general, the findings line up with those from previous studies showing the benefits of regular physical activity — and underline that moving your body doesn't have to be exceedingly strenuous to be helpful.

Even adding just a few minutes of vigorous activity into your daily routine can have a significant impact on your risk for dying early, previous research found. Another study, published last month, found that people who walked for five minutes every half hour had lower blood pressure and lower blood sugar levels than those who stayed sitting down.

“Just living your regular life but doing a little more at your ‘inconvenience,’ such as walking up stairs rather than waiting for the elevator can be helpful," Dr. I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School and an epidemiologist and physical activity researcher at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told previously. 

The new study didn't look specifically at the impact of breaking up your 20 minutes of activity versus working out consistently, Watts explains, but that may be another area for investigation in the future.