Federal guidelines say that US adults should get at least 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity, or 150 minutes of less vigorous activity, per week. But over the past few years, many studies have promoted the benefits of exercise, much less than that.
One 2022 study found that squeezing in just three minutes of vigorous activity a day could lead to a longer life. Another study, also published in 2022, linked 15 minutes of physical activity per week to longevity. The 2019 paper goes further, arguing that just 10 minutes of movement a week can help you live longer. The results are surprising—but may seem overwhelming, given long-standing activity guidelines that recommend exercising 10 times more to stay healthy.
“Maybe someone out there looks at this and says, ‘Well, I’m not sure I buy it,'” said Stephen J. Carter, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Public Health who researches exercise and aging. “But maybe we need to think about sports in a different way.”
Any amount of movement is better than none, Carter says, and it takes very little to reap health benefits.
How short an activity benefits your health
When you put stress on your body through exercise, even for a short period of time, you cause physiological changes, says Malia Blue, assistant professor of exercise and exercise science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Even small doses of activity can increase blood flow and improve the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels. Over time, these changes can reduce the risk for conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, Blue said.
When your muscles are active, they also release compounds that can improve the health of organs in the body, says Kevin Murach, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas who studies muscle biology.
Plus, by getting up and moving—even just for a few minutes—you’re interrupting your sedentary time, says Blue. Research has shown that sitting too much is bad for your health, and replacing almost all sedentary time with movement is beneficial. “There are two types [benefit]: if you eliminate sedentary time and increase physical activity, you will see the health benefits of both,” said Blue.
People who exercise in hopes of losing weight or training for a specific athletic event probably won’t get dramatic results with just a few minutes a day. But that doesn’t mean you don’t benefit from short spurts of movement.
“People want that quick gratification and frankly, that just doesn’t work with sports,” said Carter. “You might not look like a YouTuber” leading a five-minute post-class workout, “but you’re doing great.”
The study states: One widely cited review of research from 2014 showed that cardiorespiratory fitness was a better predictor of mortality than body mass index. These findings show that exercise can benefit your health at any size. The benefits also extend beyond the physical body, as many studies show that movement improves mental well-being.
Benefits can be difficult to quantify
Murach agrees that even a little exercise can improve health, but says it’s important to be cautious when it comes to learning about bite-sized exercises. Often, studies only capture a snapshot of time rather than the participants’ entire lives, Murach said. Some studies also don’t do a good job of teasing out whether exercise causes specific health benefits or is simply related to them.
“I believe there are benefits,” Murach said. “But if you do exercise every day, is that going to be a silver bullet to increase your lifespan?” That’s harder to understand, he said.
Another complicating factor is that people start from different baselines. For inactive people, adding a small amount of exercise each week can make a pretty dramatic difference. But for people who already exercise sporadically, it will take more than a few extra minutes to get an additional health boost.
Intensity and duration
All sports are not equal either. Five minutes of intense sprinting will have a different effect on your body than five minutes of leisurely walking.
This does not mean that light or moderate activity is useless. In the London Transport Workers Study, which began in the 1940s, researchers found that train conductors had a lower rate of coronary heart disease than drivers, because they had a more active job. These results—and many studies conducted in the decade since—suggest that moderate activities that may not be considered traditional “exercise,” such as housework or walking, can have a positive effect.
But intensity is important, especially if you’re only moving for a short time. Compared to more moderate activity, vigorous movements that get the heart pumping, like running or jumping jacks, more efficiently trigger physical benefits, Carter said. The two strongest exercise-related predictors of longevity—grip strength and aerobic capacity—can improve modestly after a short workout, but may require longer, more intense movements to improve significantly, Murach said. Large studies have shown that the benefits of exercise compounds as much as they do, so there is no reason to stop for a few minutes if you have the time and ability to continue.
The good news is that activity is variable and measurable. Vigorous exercise may be light exercise for others—but as long as your heart rate is up and your breathing is a little labored, you’ll be doing just fine, Carter says. You can also build intensity over time, research suggests. You might start by walking a few times a day, then work your way up to more vigorous movements, done for long periods of time, as you get stronger, Blue says.
The takeaway is that some exercise is always better than none, and every little bit adds up.
“It’s quite surprising, the amount of health benefits you can get from even little bouts of exercise,” Murach agreed. “It might not be something that makes you lose 30 pounds, but it can improve your health in several capacities — your physiological health and your mental health.”
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