Breaking news from Sweden (and how often does that happen): If you’re a HIIT-hater or someone who forces intense exercise, rejoice — light exercise has bigger benefits than we thought. Big enough to make you live longer.
What Science Wants Us to Know about Light Exercise
Scientists from Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet published a long-term study that concludes light physical activity plays an important role in people’s lifespans. It’s great news for fitness nerds like us because the study contains the highest quality data to date about the full spectrum of physical activity—from sedentary time to vigorous activity.
The study has two big strengths over previous research:
- Participants wore accelerometers for seven full days, giving researchers access to detailed and objective information about their physical activity instead of vague and unreliable self-reported information. Because we all lie about how much we’re moving. No shame. (Accelerometers track activity—like a Fitbit with greater accuracy and without the branding.)
- The researchers tracked health outcomes for a full 15 years, which is more than double the follow-up time compared to the only similar data set ever published before.
We know what you’re thinking: With so many people wearing fitness trackers these days, what’s so impressive about studying seven days’ worth of data? The truth is that the functionality and quality of normal fitness trackers vary too much. The ones used in the study? Up to scientific standard. The ones used on your dog walks? Probably not.
Bottom line: The dataset in this study is the new quality standard.
What is light physical activity anyway?
Exercise researchers use the impractical definition of 100-2019 accelerometer counts per minute as the definition of light exercise. And no, accelerometer counts are not the same thing as steps that some popular fitness trackers use. …still confused? Yeah, we are too.
In the real world, health professionals think about light exercise in terms of heart rate—greater than resting but below 50 percent of your maximum—or calories burned per minute at a rate of 3.5 or fewer.
For our purposes, though, we can keep things simple: Light exercise is anything other than sitting or lying still.
What does mild exercise have to do with living longer?
More than you think. Or more than scientists used to think.
The researchers categorized the participants into three groups and compared their lifespan outcomes for each type of physical activity. Here’s what they found:
- The most active people had a 55–70 percent lower risk of death and a whopping 91–93 percent lower risk of death from heart disease. These numbers are much bigger than the 20–25 percent average risk reduction found in earlier studies.
- A surprisingly big percentage of these numbers—a 52–67 percent lower risk of death—shows up when looking at data only about light exercise.
- The same pattern holds true for light exercise and deaths from both heart disease and cancer.
- It’s called a dose-response relationship, which means that the more exercise of any kind, the better your health outcomes.
The strong association between overall physical activity and lifespans is supported by a similar recent study of older women that found a 60–70 percent lower risk of death when comparing most- and least-active people. Moderate and vigorous exercise played a more major role in the health outcomes of these older women, so we want to be careful to say that light exercise alone isn’t enough to keep you totally fit. Instead, the message is that the more movement, the better. And that includes low-intensity movement.
The takeaway: The benefits of light exercise = longer life
You don’t need to lift 350 pounds on the reg or train for an Olympic-distance triathlon to stay fit. You can make great progress toward overall health and fitness by focusing on a more realistic daily goal (i.e., light exercise).
How to fit more light exercise into your day
Set your target for six or more hours of physical activity every day. Six? Don’t kill us yet; this isn’t as hard as you think. Here are some things that count, and spoiler: You’re probably already doing some of them.
- Going to work. Teachers, nurses, waiters, and many other jobs all fit the bill. Your desk job doesn’t. Sorry.
- Having a dog. Add any time you spend walking or playing with your dog to your daily tally.
- Cleaning, doing yard work, even cooking.
- Playing pool at the bar.
- Playing a match of Nintendo Wii tennis or pretending you’re actually driving a car in Mario Kart. (We know we’re not the only ones who do this.)
- Using a standing desk
- Walking to lunch.
- Pacing when you’re on the phone.
Start by seeing how many hours you’re logging now. Then aim to increase it by an hour a week until you’re closer to six than not most days. Some more benefits of low-intensity exercise? It’s easier to incorporate into your daily life than hours at the gym and isn’t as demanding on your joints or annoyance level.
How one amazing woman gets those 6 hours
Caveat: This story is about my mom. My mom has been doing light and slow exercise for years without even realizing it. Here’s how she does it:
Keeps the active in her social activities: Three mornings every week, she meets one of her closest friends to walk around the town lake. They don’t even do it for the exercise—they just love having the chance to chat.
Stays on her toes at work: She manages the student center at a local school. Not a lot of sitting still there.
Prioritizes a favorite hobby: In this case, gardening
Fits in higher-intensity stuff when she wants to: She also takes weight-lifting classes at the gym and occasionally trains for triathlons, but she doesn’t keep a strict schedule for the high-intensity stuff.
And that, in brief, is our advice to you today. Work out in whatever way makes you happy, whether it’s Crossfit or basketball or yoga. In the meantime, make sure that your normal days have some light exercise built in, so that even if life gets in the way of the gym on a given day, you’re still getting enough life-extending movement no matter what.
Your turn: How do you fit in light exercise? Tell us in the comments and check out some easy ways to stick to your fitness routine.
Author: Scott Trimble
Scott researched human motivation at The University of Texas at Austin. He spends most of his time traveling, reading, teaching, and writing.