UCL News


Light exercise may lower death risk in older men

20 February 2018

Clocking up just a few minutes at a time of any level of physical activity, including of light intensity, is linked to a lower risk of death in older men, suggests UCL-led research.

Cacti crop

The study, which was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that although there were greater benefits from doing moderate or more intense activity, even light intensity physical activity lowered the risk of death.

Light activities could include for example gentle walking or light gardening such as watering and tending pot plants whereas more intense activities might include mowing the lawn, swimming or briskly walking the dog.

Current exercise guidelines recommend accumulating at least 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous physical activity in bouts lasting at least 10 minutes.  

The guidelines don't acknowledge any benefits of light activity as there wasn't enough evidence to make a recommendation about light activity the last time they were written.

This research found that each additional 30 minutes a day of light intensity activity was associated with a 17 percent reduction in the risk of death, and there were still benefits even after accounting for potentially influential lifestyle factors and social background.

Total volume of activity, rather than doing activity in 10 minute bouts, as current guidelines recommend, might be key.

"The results suggest that all activities, however modest, are beneficial. Hence older men who can't manage the moderate intensity activities that get the heart pumping harder shouldn't be put off being active; they can still gain important benefits from light activity," said Dr Barbara Jefferis (UCL Primary Care and Population Health).

"To increase longevity, it's best to do moderate or intense activities, but if that's not possible it's better to do light activities than none at all. It doesn't matter if person does the activity in long or short bursts as everything counts."

This the first study in the UK of older men which used body-worn activity monitors and linked the results from these to health and longevity data from a cohort study, in this case the British Regional Heart Study.

The availability of body-worn activity monitors means that researchers can now investigate more accurately whether light activity is linked to longevity - this is particularly important because light activities are not well recorded in questionnaires.

The monitors also mean it's possible to look at whether the pattern of doing activity in bouts lasting 10 minutes or more, as the guidelines suggest, is important. There aren't many studies with both activity monitor and longevity data -and few that focus on older adults. 

The British Regional Heart Study involved 7735 men from 24 towns, who were aged between 40 and 59 when the study started in 1978-80.  

In 2010-12, the 3137 survivors were invited for a check-up, which included a physical examination, and questions about their lifestyle, sleeping patterns, and whether they had ever been diagnosed with heart disease.

They were also asked to wear an activity monitor during waking hours for 7 days. Their health was then tracked until death or June 2016, whichever came first.



Pot plants via Pixabay

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Email: m.orgill [at] ucl.ac.uk