Even a few small steps extend life

Even a completely non-challenging stroll can significantly reduce the risk of premature death. While, until now, professionals have said that you need to exert yourself to benefit, all activity is important. Furthermore, the effect of doing something relatively minor is greater than previously thought.

Crowdf crossing street on foot
Sit less, walk just a little more and more often.It doesn't take much and you don't really need to "exercise" to improve your health, this new study shows. Photo: Shutterstock

A new extensive study using data from Norway, Sweden, England and the USA demonstrates this.

"That means that virtually everyone has something to gain," says Ulf Ekelund, professor of sports medicine at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences (NIH). “It's genuinely positive.”

Ulf Ekelund portrait
"Our findings are truly positive. The necessary activity is something close to everyone can manage" says professor Ulf Ekelund. Photo: NIH

– Something everyone can manage

In the so-called meta-study, they have compared physical activity and mortality in more than 36,000 people over a period of 40 years. The least active 25% exercised "moderately intensely," i.e. a quick walk, for just two minutes a day, or a total of 15 minutes a week. The most active group exercised for 38 minutes a day.

“The vast majority engage in very moderate activity, which most people hardly see as training. Simply parking the car or getting off the bus a little further away from the shops, the pub or work is positive,” he says.

“This is very easy for the vast majority to achieve.

A few minutes have a significant effect

During the six-year study period, five times more people in the least active group died compared with the most active group. However, even in the “next-laziest” 25%, mortality was only half that figure.

“Therefore, small changes in physical activity can have major health benefits,” says Ulf Ekelund.

The second least active group exercised moderately for only six minutes a day, while the least active group restricted themselves to just two minutes. They exercised slightly, but even then only very light exercise.

Go for a walk, do a bit of gardening

The recommendations of both the World Health Organisation and US and Nordic health authorities are for moderate to intense activity for at least 150 minutes, or 2½ hours, a week.

Oversized man walking dog
Less and easier activity than previously believed is really necessary to gain significant health improvements, study shows. Photo: Shutterstock


In the new study, actual activity is measured by an accelerometer, a sensor on the body of each individual. And the results show that even low-intensity activities such as gardening and a leisurely walk reduce the risk of premature death significantly.

“Furthermore, the effect on health is even greater than previously believed. And this is fully documented,” says Ulf Ekelund.

Double effect

To achieve a 35% reduction in mortality, moderate to intense activity three to five times current recommendations was previously recommended, i.e. 7 to 12 hours a week.

"Our review demonstrates that if you merely meet the recommendations of 2½ hours a week, mortality is reduced almost twofold, nearly 70%," the professor says.

“All activity is of benefit, and this applies regardless of the age and level.”

Activity more important than training

As in previous studies, it appears that the effect is greatest on those who are the least physically active, but less is required, and the effect is greater than previously discovered.

Activity has a number of positive effects on health: It increases what is known as lipid metabolism and improves insulin balance, blood pressure and the immune system. In addition, you become stronger and improve your balance, which reduces the risk of injury through falls, for example.

In the study, researchers have compared around 36,000 people by looking at their physical activity level. They have made allowances for all the important factors that can play a part, such as age, sex, body mass index (BMI), socioeconomic status, smoking, etc.

“The simple message is that you should sit less and be more active more frequently,” says Ulf Eklund. But you really don't have to "train".


The study is published in British Medical Journal: