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Forget long workouts! Short spurts of exercise could lead to a longer life

There may be health benefits to parking far away from a building or speed walking to bring the trash out.

The more steps you take each day, whether they are in short spurts or all at once, may lead to a longer life, a new study suggests.

While walking in bouts of 10 minutes or more appear to have the most impact on life expectancy, shorter strolls, if there are a lot of them, can also contribute, researchers reported Thursday at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle and Cardiovascular Health Conference.

“This is just one study, but it suggests that there is a lot of flexibility in the way people can accumulate physical activity throughout the day," the study’s lead author, Chris Moore, told Today.

“A lot of people think you need to go to the gym and have long bouts of continuous exercise, but you can be active without going to the gym," said Moore, a PhD student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “And that’s more feasible for a lot more people, especially those like the participants in this study who were older women. Older adults have a lot of barriers to doing more structured exercise.”

The study suggests that people can get enough exercise to extend life just by increasing the distances walked by small amounts, Moore said. “For example, if you want to park slightly further away from a building you can get in more steps,” he said.

Most earlier studies relied on people’s memory of how much walking they did, Moore said. The new research is based on an experiment in which 16,732 participants in the Women’s Health Study (a national study focused on disease prevention) wore an accelerometer, a device that captures movement, for four to seven days between 2011 and 2015. The participants in the study were all over age 60 (average age 72) and were mostly non-Hispanic white women.

When they performed their analysis, the researchers categorized the total number of steps each woman took into two groups: those taken during bouts of 10 or more minutes with few interruptions and those taken in shorts spurts during daily activities such as taking the stairs or walking to and from the car.

Moore and his colleagues followed the women, tracking deaths from any cause, for an average of six years, through Dec. 31, 2019. Overall, 804 deaths occurred during the entire study period (2011 through 2019).

The women who took more steps in short spurts lived longer even if most of the steps were taken sporadically. The greatest impact was experienced by women who took 2,000 or more steps in bouts that were 10 minutes or longer in addition to 3,000 steps in shorter spurts: These women had a 32% decrease in the risk of death during the course of the study.

In future research, Moore would like to look more closely at women who took a lot of steps, but mostly in bouts of less than 10 minutes.

“What I love about this study is it really suggests that we should get activity however we can throughout the day,” said Dr. Seth Martin, a cardiologist and an associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

“It doesn’t necessarily need to be something planned or that you make time for,” Martin said. “It can be attained just by living life, taking the stairs, walking further distances to the car. It all adds up during the day. It’s surprising sometimes how quickly steps add up, a little here and a little there.”

To get the most out of those spurts of walking, it would be best to walk at a brisk pace, Martin advised. “You want to try to get your heart rate up a little,” he said.

“These results should push us to think about where in our daily lives are the opportunities to get more steps in,” Martin said. “Having dedicated bouts is beneficial as well. But you’ve got to start somewhere if you are way below the goals and work up from there.”