Short bursts of vigorous exercise better than more gentle exercise

24th Apr 2015

Short bursts of vigorous activity, rather than long bouts of more gentle activity, are better at preventing early death, according to a study of over 200,000 middle aged men and women. Whilst activities that require a certain amount of physical exertion, like gardening, gentle walking or swimming are recommended to keep us healthy it would seem that more strenuous exercise, that leaves you out of breath and sweaty, are more effective at preventing early death.

The study, conducted by researchers in Australia, looked at more than 200,000 middle aged people (aged 45-75) for six years. They discovered that those who did more than 45 minutes of vigorous physical exercise, such as jogging or aerobics, which left them out of breath and sweaty, were 13 per cent less likely to have died of any cause during that period. The researchers found this difference to be statistically significant, and indicate that bouts of more vigorous activity can extend life expectancy, by warding off illnesses like heart disease or diabetes.

Housework, washing the car or taking the dog for a walk can be beneficial for health. Current World Health Organisation guidelines, adopted in the UK, are that adults should exercise with moderate activity for 150 minutes per week or 75 minutes if the activities are vigorous. But swapping one for the other, where 1 minute of vigorous activity is equivalent to 2 minutes moderate activity, may not reap the benefits of exercise regimes that include some vigorous activity.

Instead, the research suggests that bursts of more vigorous activity is necessary to prolong life expectancy, and that at least 45 minutes – 30 per cent – of the 150 minutes should include vigorous exercise, such as jogging, aerobics or competitive tennis. The researchers suggest that guidelines should be changed to make people realise they need to work harder to get the health benefits.

The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that the health benefits of vigorous exercise were true for middle aged men as well as women, and extended to people with weight problems and pre-existing cardiovascular disease.

“Our research indicates that even small amounts of vigorous activity could help reduce your risk of early death,” said Klaus Gebel of James Cook University in Cairns, Queensland, the lead author of the study.

“The benefits of vigorous activity applied to men and women of all ages, and were independent of the total time spent being active. The results indicate that whether or not you are obese, and whether or not you have heart disease or diabetes, if you can manage some vigorous activity it could offer significant benefits for longevity,” Dr Gebel said.

The paper does include a note of caution from one study author, however, who said that, “For those with medical conditions, for older people in general and for those who have never done any vigorous exercise before, it’s always important to talk to a doctor first.”

Rachel Kayani

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