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There seems to be a new study every week or so touting the benefits of exercise. Increased physical activity can improve cardiovascular health; build muscle; reduce fat and cholesterol; alleviate stress and anxiety; and decrease the risk of developing diseases such as cancer. Simply put, exercise is good for you, physically and mentally.

But how much exercise do you need to reap benefits, and if you’re a novice, where do you start? Let’s take a look at some of the most recent research on the topic.

Putting a Clock on Exercise
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 weekly minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity, such as brisk walking, and at least two days of strength training per week. But various studies show even small amounts of exercise can have a positive effect on your health.

A new study published this week in JAMA Oncology found that people who averaged roughly four minutes of vigorous movement per day reduced their risk of developing cancer by about 17%. This study followed more than 22,000 people who said they didn’t engage in formal exercise but whose wearable monitors (accelerometers) registered short bursts of higher intensity physical activity, such as climbing the stairs or carrying shopping bags for one to two minutes.

headshot of Dr. Nate Parker

Dr. Nathan Parker, Assistant Member, Health Outcomes & Behavior Department

“Lacking motivation and struggling to make time for exercise are important barriers that prevent a lot of us from meeting exercise guidelines. This study shows that making simple choices to move vigorously a few times a day might be important for cancer prevention,” said Dr. Nathan Parker, a researcher in the Department of Health Outcomes and Behavior at Moffitt Cancer Center. “These findings might help a lot of people engage in health-promoting physical activity, even if they have low motivation or have little free time for structured exercise.”

If you’re not quite ready for 150 minutes a week of exercise, even 10 minutes a day is beneficial. A study from the National Cancer Institute and CDC found that if adults 40 and older increased moderate-to-vigorous physical activity by 10 minutes per day, 111,174 deaths could be prevented every year. And adding 20 minutes per day nearly doubled the number of lives saved, 209,459 lives. 

Moving for the Mind
Physical activity is also a great stimulus for your brain. Researchers at the University College London Medical School followed just over 1,400 adults for 30 years and found being physically active, even if it is just one day a month, is linked with higher brain function later in life.

“This study showed that maintaining physical activity throughout adulthood was associated with the best cognitive outcomes, but these findings also suggest that just ‘some’ activity is better than none when it comes to cognitive health,” Parker said.

Cancer Survivors on the Move
Cancer survivors can also benefit from increased activity. A recent study from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that performing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, which averages 21 minutes a day, was tied to a 66% lower risk of all-cause mortality and a 68% lower risk of cancer-specific mortality.

It’s important to remember that it may not be feasible to immediately go from doing no physical activity to doing 150 minutes per week. Cancer survivors should increase physical activity over time, incorporating both aerobic and muscle strengthening activity into their routines, to break up or replace periods of prolonged sitting.

5 Tips to Increase Physical Activity
Parker, who studies the benefits of exercise during cancer treatment, shared the following tips for keeping your body and brain in good shape:

  1. National guidelines recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week and doing resistance training to strengthen major muscle groups at least twice per week.
  2. Moderate-intensity aerobic activity can include going for walks or bike rides, active play with kids or grandkids at the park, gardening and other work around the house, and playing sports or active games with friends.
  3. Resistance training can be done using bodyweight, basic equipment or any object that provides some weight.
  4. People who have not been physically active should gradually ramp up their activity, increasing frequency, duration and intensity week by week.
  5. You don’t need to spend hours at the gym or on a treadmill. The best physical activity program for you is the one you can stick to.