In a groundbreaking study supported by the British Heart Foundation, researchers from UCL and the University of Sydney have uncovered compelling evidence that replacing sedentary behaviour with as little as a few minutes of moderate exercise daily can significantly enhance heart health. Published in the European Heart Journal, this research is the first to explore the link between different movement patterns throughout the entire day and their impact on cardiovascular well-being. The findings emerged from the international Prospective Physical Activity, Sitting, and Sleep (ProPASS) consortium.
Cardiovascular disease, encompassing heart and circulation-related illnesses, remains the leading global cause of mortality. In 2021 alone, it accounted for one in three deaths, with coronary heart disease standing out as the single biggest killer. The prevalence of cardiovascular disease has doubled worldwide since 1997 and is projected to rise further.
The study, conducted at UCL, involved the analysis of data from six studies covering 15,246 individuals across five countries. Participants wore a wearable device on their thighs to monitor their activity throughout the 24-hour day, and their heart health was assessed using six common indicators.
The research revealed a hierarchy of behaviours in a typical day, with moderate-vigorous activity offering the most substantial heart health benefits, followed by light activity, standing, and sleeping, in contrast to the adverse impact of sedentary behaviour.
The researchers explored the potential impact on heart health by modelling various behaviour changes throughout the week. Remarkably, replacing as little as five minutes of sedentary behaviour with moderate-vigorous activity had a noticeable effect. For instance, a 30-minute change for a 54-year-old woman with an average BMI of 26.5 translated into a 0.64 decrease in BMI, a 2.7% decrease in waist circumference, or a 3.6% decrease in glycated hemoglobin.
Dr. Jo Blodgett, the first author of the study, emphasized, “While small changes to how you move can have a positive effect on heart health, intensity of movement matters.” The study highlighted that the most beneficial change observed was replacing sitting with moderate to vigorous activity, such as running, brisk walking, or stair climbing.
The researchers stressed that even individuals with varying abilities can benefit, with the intensity of activity determining the time required to see tangible benefits. Using a standing desk for a few hours a day, for example, proved effective over a relatively extended period, making it a manageable change for many.
Interestingly, the study found that those who were least active experienced the greatest benefits when transitioning from sedentary behaviors to more active ones.
Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis, joint senior author of the study, highlighted the novelty of the ProPASS consortium’s use of wearable devices, enabling a more precise estimation of health effects based on subtle variations in physical activity and posture.
While the findings cannot establish causality between movement behaviours and cardiovascular outcomes, they contribute to the growing evidence linking moderate to vigorous physical activity over 24 hours with improved body fat metrics. Further long-term studies are deemed crucial for a comprehensive understanding of the associations between movement and cardiovascular outcomes.
Professor Mark Hamer, the joint senior author of the study, emphasized the novelty of considering a range of behaviours across the entire day. He suggested that this approach could pave the way for personalized recommendations to encourage people to become more active in ways that suit their circumstances.
James Leiper, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, highlighted the practical aspect, stating, “This encouraging research shows that small adjustments to your daily routine could lower your chances of having a heart attack or stroke.” He recommended incorporating “activity snacks” into daily life, such as walking during phone calls or setting alarms for brief bursts of activity.
In conclusion, the study reinforces the idea that every bit of movement counts and that even minimal adjustments to our daily routines can yield significant benefits for heart health. It’s a reminder that, regardless of our fitness levels, finding ways to incorporate activity into our lives can contribute to a healthier, more active lifestyle.