Lovers of vigorous exercise aren’t the only ones who get health benefits from physical activity. Lower-key workouts — even activities you’d never think of as exercise — can also improve your well-being, studies find.
Now, new research published in JAMA Network Open shows just how impactful any type of movement can be. Compared to women who get less exercise, those who get lots of light physical activity may have up to a 42% lower risk of dying from coronary problems, such as heart attacks, and a 22% lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease, the study says.
Light activity includes “most of the movements of daily life,” says study co-author Andrea LaCroix, a professor and chief of epidemiology at the University of California, San Diego. Walking around, getting dressed, checking the mail, pruning the garden and doing dishes all count. “Those are examples of daily life activities that we don’t think of as exercise, but we spend a lot of time doing them and they involve movement,” LaCroix says. “We traditionally haven’t included them in our definition of physical activity. That’s why this research is really paradigm-shifting.”
The researchers examined data from almost 6,000 healthy U.S. women ages 63 and older, all of whom wore fitness trackers to record activity levels for a week. During a follow-up period of up to five years, 143 people developed coronary heart disease and another 570 developed some type of cardiovascular disease, which can include heart attack, stroke and heart failure.
While the study only showed associations — not cause and effect — researchers found plenty of support for the positive effects of light activity. But there was a catch. The women who appeared to be getting the biggest health boost from light exercise were doing lots of it: between 5.6 and 10.3 hours per day, compared to less than 3.9 hours per day in the least-active group. Given that 25% of Americans are sedentary for more than eight hours of their waking day, that’s quite a reach for many people.
But even if moving for five hours a day isn’t realistic, you should increase your activity levels as much as possible. “You don’t have to be in the upper quartile,” LaCroix says. “You just have to do more.” In the study, one extra hour of light movement per day corresponded to a 14% drop in coronary heart disease risk and an 8% drop in cardiovascular disease risk, even after adjusting for other moderate or vigorous activity. Other studies suggest that just 30 minutes of extra movement per day can reduce the risk of early death.
“The beauty of this is, it’s not the kind of stuff that has to wear you out, and you don’t have to do it all at once,” LaCroix says. “You can get up for 10 minutes an hour and walk to the end of the street and back, or walk around your house.”
The most recent federal physical activity guidelines echo this message, urging Americans to “move more and sit less,” even if that means exercising in tiny chunks. But the guidelines still recommend up to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week — which can feel daunting, particularly to older people or those struggling with health problems, LaCroix says.
“When an older woman hears that she has to exercise moderately or vigorously for 150 to 300 minutes a week, she just kind of rolls her eyes,” LaCroix says. “[But exercise is] not just leisure-time physical activity. It’s all the stuff we do from the minute we get out of bed to the minute we get back in bed.”
While LaCroix’s study looked only at older women, she says similar results likely apply to younger people and men. (Past data supports this, too.) But she says there’s a reason she and her colleagues chose to focus on older women for their research.
“Rates of heart disease have declined more slowly in older women than men in the past several decades, yet older women have been overlooked in studies of heart disease prevention,” LaCroix says. Heart disease is the leading killer of both American men and women. “I want to shout out to all the older women that we are paying attention to you. All you have to do is teach yourself to have the practice of getting up and moving as much as you can.”