What is the least exercise we can do?

  • By James Gallagher
  • Inside Health Presenter, BBC Radio 4

source of images, Getty Images

How much exercise do you manage to do?

In a parallel universe, I practically live in the pool, ride my bike everywhere, and do 10k races just for fun.

However, in the real world of work, family, and being a caregiver, my weekly swim feels like a feat.

So, is there anything easier to aim for? What is the least amount of exercise that will begin to improve our health?

Someone keen to make exercise advice less daunting is Dr Zoe Saynor, assistant professor of clinical exercise physiology at the University of Portsmouth, not to mention a retired elite level rugby player .

She will help me find an answer. To that end, I’ve been wearing an activity tracker for a week.


Dr Zoe Saynor invited me to her lab at the University of Portsmouth

I’ll get my apologies early – it was an incredibly busy week at work, and I was strapped to my desk most of the time I wore it.

The results are always frightening. I only managed one minute of vigorous exercise (equivalent to running) each day and 16 minutes of moderate exercise (something like a brisk walk).

“It’s a picture we see over and over again in many people living in modern society,” says Dr. Saynor.

Whatever the state of my body, a lot will depend on that one hour of swimming that I spend most weekends.

Go fast or go far?

If you want to spend less time exercising – and still get high results – then the only option is to work harder.

“There is clear evidence that if you want to do shorter exercise sessions, they need to be of a higher intensity,” says Dr. Saynor.

According to official guidelines, the alternative to doing 150 minutes of moderate activity is to do 75 minutes vigorously.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT), involving short but highly explosive bursts of activity, is getting a lot of attention.

However, Dr. Saynor says most people can’t stick with it because HIIT requires exercising at such intense levels.

What is the bare minimum?

When it comes to the minimum amount of exercise people should do, Dr. Saynor says she’s a firm believer in 5,000 to 6,000 steps a day.

It’s easy to scoff at advice to get off the bus a stop early or walk around on your lunch break, but it seems to make a difference.

A study of nearly 80,000 people published in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that walking a little more each day reduced the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease or premature death.

This pattern continues until you reach around 10,000 steps per day – again, fast steps are worth more than slow steps.

“If you don’t have time to suddenly take 10,000 steps a day, can we get you to take 5,000 steps faster? We’ll see an improvement in your health,” says Dr. Saynor.

You don’t even have to do formal exercise like going for a run, going to the gym, or swimming to see a noticeable health benefit.

One study, published in Nature Medicine, looked at 25,000 people who don’t “exercise” as such, but do small bursts of vigorous activity in everyday life.

It could be really unremarkable things – running to a train, pushing the vacuum cleaner, playing with children or dogs, carrying heavy groceries or climbing stairs.

Research has shown that between three and four minutes of short bursts of vigorous activity throughout the day have a profound beneficial effect on health.

“People who display this intermittent activity can reduce their risk of major diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, by up to 50%,” Mark Hamer, a professor of sports and exercise medicine at University College London.

“Over the past decade, the guidelines have slowly moved away from the message of 30 more minutes a day towards the message of ‘everything counts,’ and I think these results confirm that message.”

source of images, Getty Images

Lie in the bath – and get in shape?

If you still don’t have time to do this, there may be another way – and it sounds much nicer.

What does a bath, hot tub or sauna sound like?

I put on my favorite swim shorts – a cute pair of flamingos – and got into a very hot bath.

This is a precisely controlled experiment, so I can’t just jump into it. Researcher Thomas James has to winch me into a pool of 40°C water so that only my head and neck are above the water.

The point of 40C is that it’s higher than my core body temperature (37C), so the whole time I’m here my body is working hard to lose heat.

Very quickly I can feel the sweat beading on my forehead, but on the rest of my body it just gets washed away and doesn’t cool me down.

“Hot water is actually particularly deadly in this regard,” says James.

If I stayed here too long, I would overheat and die of heat stroke. My heart pumps harder and faster as it tries to lose heat bringing blood closer to the surface of my skin.

“Your core will work hard, like what you would see with light-intensity exercise,” he says.

“We see reductions in blood pressure, even in healthy people.”

The big idea is to improve exercise.

“It’s a really good way to mimic some of the benefits you get from exercise, but the evidence is certainly pretty clear that exercise is best and the two together provide the greatest health benefits” , says Mr James, adding: “I think that will really play a big part in the future!

So if you hit the gym and then hit the sauna or hot tub, you might get a cheeky boost.

However, the Portsmouth team are warning people to stick to the recommendations.

“Don’t go, ‘I’m going to stay here as long as I can.’ Do it for fun,” says James.

The advice is often between 10 and 20 minutes depending on the facilities you use, so check.

Obviously, we should all aim to get the recommended amount of exercise, but, given that many of us find this impossible, it’s hugely reassuring that there are significant benefits to be had from just doing a little. more than what we already do.

Inside Health was produced by Erika Wright.

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