When less is more

Exercise benefits, such as lowering cholesterol or boosting your mood, aren’t anything you haven’t heard of before. But if you need even more workout motivation, know that just a few minutes of exercise a day could help you live a longer life.

How much should you exercise?

According to 2011 research published in The Lancet, people who had relatively low activity—they exercised 92 minutes a week or about 15 minutes of exercise a day—had a 3-year longer life expectancy compared to people who were inactive. Those in the low activity group also had a 14% lower risk of death from common causes like heart disease and cancer compared with completely sedentary people. And that’s just one benefit of walking 15 minutes a day.

Other research published in PLOS Medicine found that 75 minutes of moderate exercise or walking per week—a little over 10 minutes a day—seemed to improve life expectancy by 1.8 years, as well as 300 minutes by 3.4 years, and 500 minutes by 4.5 years. And a review in the Journal of Aging Research and found that, in general, physical activity adds years to your life. All that said, Dr Alexis Halpern, an emergency medicine specialist, notes that even more studies are necessary to pin down an exact number.

Why does exercise improve life expectancy?

Although there might not be a definitive, magical amount of exercise for a longer life, studies have found that exercise also reduces your risk for certain diseases, Dr Carolyn Dean, a medical advisory board member at the American Nutritional Magnesium Association says. “One study found that only two-and-a-half hours of brisk walking a week cut the risk of [type 2] diabetes by 30 per cent,” Dr Dean says.

Similarly, studies have found that exercise can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of stroke, ward off Alzheimer’s disease, and even reduce the risk of some cancers, according to Dr Dean. Plus, staying active has psychological benefits since endorphins are released with exercise, leading to a better mood.

Women might see a greater benefit

A brighter mood is just one of the benefits both men and women can experience from extra exercise. According to Dr Bert R. Mandelbaum, author of The Win Within: Capturing Your Victorious Spirit, however, women are outliving men by about four years—and the gap was previously wider.

There are so many factors that impact life expectancy, so it is unclear if exercise makes a bigger difference in men versus women. Some evidence, according to Dr Halpern, shows that low to moderate levels of exercise like walking help prevent cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes more in women than men.

Bottom line: Possibly living longer is just another exercise benefit

Gender aside, if you are looking to add more physical activity to your life remember that something is better than nothing when it comes to exercise, Dr Dean says. However, some workouts could be better life-boosters than others. For example, one study found the top exercises for longevity were tennis or racquetball, swimming, and aerobics, according to Dr Dean.

“Among the people who did 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity each week, people who played racquet sports had a 47 per cent lower risk of dying during the nine-year study than people who didn’t exercise,” she says. Walking, swimming, Tai chi, and strength training are all excellent exercise options too.

All-in-all, the best workout is simply the one you consistently enjoy the most. Because if you don’t like it, you won’t do it.