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How much exercise do you need for a longer life? Activity 'cocktails' offer clues

Even if you regularly work out, it's not as simple as checking off the exercise box on your to-do list.
/ Source: TODAY

It feels so good after a workout, especially knowing you’re doing something wonderful for your health.

But even people who run, bike or otherwise get their heart pumping every morning won’t get the life-extending benefits of exercise if they sit the rest of the day, a new study has found.

That’s where physical activity “cocktails” come in — certain combinations of intense exercise, light activity and sitting that can help a person live longer, researchers reported Wednesday in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

It’s a shift in thinking for people who follow the advice to exercise intensely for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, and believe they’re done, said study co-author Keith Diaz, an assistant professor of behavioral medicine and director of the exercise testing laboratory at the Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health at Columbia University in New York.

“It's not wrong, but it's just tip of the iceberg — it's only 2% of the day,” Diaz told TODAY.

“How you spend the rest of your day also matters… so if you exercise for 30 minutes, but then you sit for the 98% of the rest of the day, you are not going to get any health benefits.”

Researchers don't quite understand why being sedentary for 11-12 hours a day might undo the helpful effects of a workout. One theory is that muscles are key in regulating certain processes in the body, such as removing sugar from the bloodstream and breaking down fats in it, so when they’re idle, that important action stops, Diaz noted.

In that context, light physical activity matters a lot for keeping the health benefits of exercise in place. It can include walking, gardening, grocery shopping, folding laundry and vacuuming — every movement counts and is helpful.

But how much is needed to reduce the risk of early death?

For the answer, the researchers looked at data from six studies involving more than 130,000 people who wore activity trackers for seven consecutive days, giving a glimpse into their daily routine. They were followed for up to 14 years, during which 3,892 participants died, allowing the authors to analyze how different combinations of time spent being active and sedentary was associated with mortality.

It turned out that several different doses of activity “ingredients” were associated with a similar reduced risk of early death by 30%. They included:

  • 55 minutes of exercise, 4 hours of light physical activity and 11 hours of sitting
  • 13 minutes of exercise, 5.5 hours of light physical activity and 10.3 hours of sitting
  • 3 minutes of exercise, 6 hours of light physical activity and 9.7 hours of sitting

The formula “gets at the right the balance between moderate to vigorous exercise and sitting to help people lead a longer, healthier life,” said Sebastien Chastin, professor of health behavior dynamics at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland and lead author of the study, in a statement.

“The leftover hours should be spent moving around as much as possible and getting a good night’s sleep.”

Replacing sedentary time with vigorous exercise like running was six times more efficient than choosing light physical activity, but both have value, according to the study.

The findings mean people don’t have to spend an hour sweating at the gym every day — they can achieve the same health profile in other ways as long as they fit light physical activity into their daily routine.

“Not everybody is able to exercise for an hour or 30 minutes a day,” Diaz noted.

“This is now saying, ‘That's OK.’ If you can't get to that level or don't want to, there are other ways to get there. You can still lower your risk of death by just moving and moving enough throughout your day.”

He hoped the findings would make physical activity recommendations more accessible and attainable, but also help people realize it's not as simple as doing a workout and checking off the exercise box on their to-do list. It's best to just keep moving.