Short bouts of vigorous activity can reap huge benefits

A substantial cohort study suggests that for adults who cannot or do not prefer regular exercise, engaging in short bursts of vigorous activity, as simple as climbing a flight of stairs, may still significantly reduce their risk of cancer. The study, led by Dr. Emmanuel Stamatakis and his team from the University of Sydney in Australia, found that even as little as 1 minute of vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity (VILPA) per day, totaling 4.5 minutes weekly, was associated with a 20% decrease in the overall risk of cancer.

The researchers also observed a 31% reduction in the risk of physical activity-related cancer, which includes cancer types known to be possibly linked to low levels of physical activity. These findings were published in JAMA Oncology.

The potential impact of VILPA on cancer prevention is promising, particularly for individuals who cannot or lack motivation to exercise during leisure time. The study’s authors advocate for further exploration through long-term trials with cancer-related biomarkers and well-designed cohort studies using wearable devices to better understand VILPA’s potential as a cancer prevention intervention for non-exercisers and those who find traditional exercise unappealing.

Interestingly, the researchers found that even a “minimal dose” of VILPA, equivalent to 3.4 minutes of vigorous activity per day, was associated with a 17% reduced risk of total cancer incidence. Likewise, 3.7 minutes of daily vigorous activity was linked to a 28% decreased risk of physical activity-related cancer incidence.

An editorial accompanying the study emphasizes that physical activity can have additional benefits, such as improving physical fitness, muscle strength, fatigue related to cancer, and overall quality of life for cancer survivors. However, more research is needed to determine if the results can be applied to cancer patients specifically.

The study involved 22,398 adults from the U.K. Biobank accelerometry subsample, with participants who reported no leisure time exercise and engaged in one or fewer recreational walks per week. Vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity was defined as short bursts of intense physical activity, like fast walking or stair climbing, and was measured using wearable trackers, such as wrist-worn accelerometers.

The participants were followed for an average of 6.7 years, during which 2,356 new cancer events were reported, including 1,084 cases related to physical activity. The analyses were adjusted for various factors such as age, sex, body mass index, education level, smoking status, alcohol consumption, sleep duration, fruit and vegetable consumption, medications, parental cancer history, cardiovascular disease, daily durations of light- and moderate-intensity physical activity, and daily duration of longer vigorous exercise bouts.

The study highlights the importance of incorporating even sporadic episodes of brief, vigorous physical activity into daily life as it positively impacts health and helps reduce the risk of disease. Ultimately, any form of physical activity is beneficial, and the key is to establish exercise as a regular habit for overall well-being.


Primary Source

JAMA Oncology

Source Reference: Stamatakis E, et al “Vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity and cancer incidence among nonexercising adults” JAMA Oncol 2023; DOI: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2023.1830.

Secondary Source

JAMA Oncology

Source Reference: Wengström Y, et al “Short bouts of physical activity — good for health?” JAMA Oncol 2023; DOI: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2023.1810.