It turns out you can lower your risk of certain cancers in the time it takes to listen to your favorite pop song or power walk across the parking lot.
Reviewed by Dietitian Annie Nguyen, MA, RD
We have been told for decades to leave 10,000 steps a day-or collect 150 minutes physical activity per week, regardless of which method you choose – should be our goal. But a growing body of scientific evidence points to the fact that you’ll start making some serious gains at levels far lower than that. (For example, we learned this last September walking for 2 minutes after meals can help lower blood sugar.)
If you feel daunted by getting off the couch for 10,000 steps or 150 minutes, listen up: A new study published July 27, 2023 in the journal JAMA Oncology indicates that just 4 to 5 minutes of “vigorous intermittent physical activity” is enough to significantly lower cancer risk.
Read on to learn more about how they landed on this conclusion. Then we’ll explain some of the best exercise styles to incorporate into your day to put this research into practice.
Related: Adding just 10 minutes of exercise per day can improve health and slow aging, according to science
What this exercise study found
Researchers at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Center in Australia noted that previous studies suggested that adults who do not exercise appear to be at higher risk of developing 13 types of cancer (breast, endometrial, colorectal, liver, kidney, lung and more), but noted that there was a knowledge gap about how much exercise can move the needle.
“More than 1,800 cancers diagnosed in Australia this year are likely to be the direct result of physical inactivity,” Prof Karen Canfell, D.Phil.director of Daffodil Centerat the University of Sydney, explains in a News release from the University of Sydney.
Since we know that about six in 10 American adults don’t meet the recommended activity guidelines (the aforementioned 150 minutes of aerobic exercise plus 2 full-body strength training sessions per week)—and 25% of adults aren’t active at all, according to recent estimates from CDC– The researchers involved in this study wanted to try to determine the effect of small movements.
They decided to call these bursts Vigorous Intermittent Lifestyle Physical Activity, (VILPA), and place everything from vigorous housework and carrying a heavy basket around the supermarket to brisk power walking to get the mail or playing active games with children under this umbrella.
“VILPA is a bit like applying the principles of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to your everyday life,” Emmanuel Stamatakis, Ph.D.lead author of this study, as well as a professor of physical activity, lifestyle and population health at the School of Health Sciences at the University of Sydney in Australia, adds in the press release.
Related: HIIT vs LISS: Which Exercise Is Right for You?
Matches as short as 1 minute “count” Dr. Stamatakis and his team confirm. (By the way, yes, lower intensity activities like yoga and go may also be effective enough to qualify as exercise. But you need to invest more time than you would for VILPA to achieve health benefits.)
Using data from 22,398 people who signed up UK Biobank, a database of biomedical information from more than 500,000 UK residents often used for research purposes, the researchers delved into details collected from wrist accelerometers over 7 days. They then compared these activity rates with the health outcomes noted in clinical health records for 7 years. The pool of participants had an average age of 62, and they usually did not exercise or take leisurely walks in their spare time. The researchers excluded people who had received a previous cancer diagnosis or who had been diagnosed during the first year (as it was likely not enough time for any VILPA to make a difference in terms of health outcomes). They also controlled for age, smoking status, sleep habits, genetics, diet and body size.
During the 7-year follow-up, the study authors found that 2,356 cancers had been diagnosed, and about 1,084 cases were cancers that they believe may be less likely if more physical activity was present. About 92% of VILPA bouts lasted about 1 minute, and those who got 3 ½ minutes of VILPA a day appeared to have an 18% lower risk of cancer (compared to their peers who did nothing). Just 4 ½ minutes of VILPA daily was associated with a 32% lower risk of physical activity-related cancers, the researchers note. The benefits continue to grow with more activity, but it’s a significant shift in a period of time equivalent to a few commercial breaks or a pop song.
The study’s authors admit that, for now, they are still unsure exactly why this happens. But they believe that VILPA’s relationship to lower cancer risk may be related to better cardio-respiratory fitness, changes in insulin sensitivity and lower levels of chronic inflammation.
A new Australian study found that accumulating 4 minutes of vigorous activity a day – anything from walking across a parking lot to lifting grocery bags to chasing a dog or children – is enough to lower your risk of some cancers.
Since the exercise tracking was only done for one week, and given that the study was observational and cannot prove cause and effect, more deep dives are needed to verify these results.
“We need to investigate this connection further through robust trials, but it appears that VILPA may be a promising, free recommendation for lowering cancer risk in people who find structured exercise difficult or unappealing,” says Dr. Stamatakis.
As we continue to learn more, it certainly can’t hurt to study up on how to exercise even when it feels like you literally have no time. Then all that’s left to do is lace up the shoes and find opportunities for VILPA – and hopefully work up to mixing these breakouts with these 5 best exercises for your health, according to a Harvard doctor.