When it comes to exercise, every bit really does count. A new study published this week in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that the life-extending benefits of physical activity can show up whether you’re dedicating a whole block of the day to the gym or just carving out small moments by taking the stairs or walking a block longer to work—so long as it adds up to the same amount of time spent on physical activity.
Researchers analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, an annual, federally run survey which combines comprehensive interviews and physical check-ups to understand children and adults’ overall health.
They specifically looked at 4,820 volunteers over the age of 40 who had taken the survey from 2003 to 2006. As part of the survey, these volunteers had worn a device attached to their waist that tracked how often they were moving, called an accelerometer, for up to a week. The researchers then found out how many of these volunteers were still alive as of 2011, using another national database.
By 2011, 4,140 of the volunteers were around and kicking. Those who had recorded higher levels of physical activity were less likely to be dead, regardless of whether they exercised in bouts of 10 or more minutes, 5 minutes, or just sporadically throughout the day.
Overall, people who got 30 minutes a day of moderate or vigorous exercise (with moderate defined as the equivalent of brisk walking) were about a third less likely to die than people who got none, while those who got 60 minutes a day were more than half as likely to die. Those who got 100 or more minutes a day were about 80 percent less likely to die than the non-exercisers.
“For about 30 years, guidelines have suggested that moderate-to-vigorous activity could provide health benefits, but only if you sustained the activity for 10 minutes or more,” said senior study author, William E. Kraus, a professor at the Duke University School of Medicine, in a statement. “That flies in the face of public health recommendations, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and parking farther from your destination. Those don’t take 10 minutes, so why were they recommended?”
Other studies have similarly suggested that sporadic exercise can be just as valuable as gym time, but the majority of research involving exercise relies on self-reports, making it difficult to suss out anything conclusive.
The use of accelerometers, on the other hand, provide a much more objective measure of how often we’re exercising. And the team’s findings suggest exercise might be even better for us than we thought, since previous research based on self-reports has found a smaller positive effect on life expectancy.
Klaus and his colleagues, all from the National Cancer Institute, hope their findings can promote newer guidelines and health advice geared to the way people actually live. They noted, for instance, that relatively few people in the survey even managed to perform more than 10 minutes of exercise a day at a time.
“This finding can inform future physical activity guidelines and guide clinical practice when advising individuals about the benefits of physical activity,” they wrote. “This flexibility may be particularly valuable for individuals who are among the least active and likely at greater risk for developing chronic conditions.”
Currently, it’s advised that people get at least 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise, five times a week. So go ahead and take the stairs, and don’t feel too bad when you skip the gym.