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How lifestyle exercise can lower your cancer risk, according to a new study

<i>Maridav/iStockphoto/Getty Images</i><br/>Adding in a short workout such as climbing stairs is a good way to get in your daily exercise.
Maridav/iStockphoto/Getty Images
Adding in a short workout such as climbing stairs is a good way to get in your daily exercise.

By Madeline Holcombe, CNN

(CNN) — Editor’s note: Sign up for CNN’s Fitness, But Better newsletter series. Our seven-part guide will help you ease into a healthy routine, backed by experts.

As little as one or two minutes of vigorous exercise a day could lower your cancer risk, according to a new study.

This activity can include power walking, climbing stairs, doing strenuous housework or playing with the kids, according to Dr. Emmanuel Stamatakis, lead author of the study that published Thursday in the journal JAMA Oncology.

This report relied on data of more than 22,000 people in the UK Biobank, a large biomedical database and research resource that follows residents long term.

Participants reported not regularly exercising in their leisure time, and they wore accelerometers to track their VILPA, or vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity, the study said.

“Until recently we knew very little about activities done as part of daily living that reach vigorous intensity,” said Stamatakis, a professor of physical activity, lifestyle and population health at the Charles Perkins Centre and faculty of medicine and health at the University of Sydney in Australia, via email.

Adults who incorporated about 4½ minutes of vigorous activity in short one- or two-minute bouts had more than 30% lower incidence rates of cancer, the study found.

Understanding the health impact of vigorous activity in daily life is important because for many it may be more manageable, said CNN fitness contributor Dana Santas, a mind-body coach for professional athletes.

“The large majority of middle aged and older adults, more than 70-80% in most countries, are not regular exercisers in leisure time, or simply never do any exercise,” Stamatakis said via email.

For people who do get regular leisure-time exercise, there is no need to switch to these short spurts, he added. Instead, the results open up more options.

“The principle here is that the best physical activity regimen is the one every person can fit into their weekly or daily routine,” Stamatakis said.

Why it works

Because it was an observational study, researchers could only prove that small bursts of physical activity were associated with lower cancer incidence, not that the exercise directly caused less cancer, said Dr. Glenn Gaesser, professor of exercise physiology in the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University. Gaesser was not involved in the research.

However, there have been indicators as to why the two might be connected.

“Previous early-stage trials (showed) that VILPA leads to rapid improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness,” Stamatakis said in an email. “Cardiorespiratory fitness, in turn is linked to less insulin resistance and chronic inflammation, both of which are major risk factors for cancer.”

These lifestyle exercises are not meant to replace a good exercise program, but there are benefits for people who don’t like to work out.

First, VILPA doesn’t require the financial or time commitment of using exercise tools or going to a facility, Stamatakis said.

“Research is gaining new insights into what a healthy movement profile looks like. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be just spending an hour every day at the gym,” said Dr. Keith Diaz, assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City. Diaz was not involved in the research.

Second, it takes away the primary excuse not to exercise.

“ ‘Not enough time’ is the most frequent reason cited for not exercising. But who is so busy that they can’t get in 1-2 minutes … during the day?” Gaesser said in an email.

Where to find that minute or two

You know you are getting vigorous exercise if you are out of breath to the point where you wouldn’t want to hold a conversation, Santas said.

That could mean jogging in place or doing squats, mountain climbers or walking lunges, Santas said.

A short time frame may be less intimidating than signing up for a 30-minute spin class, but Santas recommends habit stacking if you are looking for ways to incorporate exercise consistently into your routine.

Try adding an exercise habit to those you already have built into your life, she said.

Santas, for example, does about 20 push-ups while waiting for the water to warm up in the shower and does wall sits or squats while brushing her teeth.

“A lot of us have electric toothbrushes that have a two-minute timer on them,” she said. “Now you’re doing that every day, hopefully twice a day.”

Such exercise is accessible, but it also is more likely to keep you coming back because of how it feels emotionally, Santas added.

“You realize how quickly a minute goes by. It’s not intimidating, and it’s easier and it makes you start to quickly feel healthier because you’re like, ‘I can do it,’” she said. “You’re doing it consistently, and it makes you proud of yourself.”

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