Study: As Few as 3.7 Minutes of Short-Burst Vigorous PA Lowers Cancer Risk

By: Russell Kowalinski | Posted: 09/05/2023

Researchers found that vigorous intermittent lifestyle PA daily can lower risk by as much as 32%. And it doesn't have to happen all at once.

The Message

As physical activity's role in reducing cancer risk continues to be better understood, so does the understanding of many adults' engagement in physical activity, which is that they generally don’t, or at least not as much as they should. Researchers used that reality as a starting point for a study of how vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity, or VILPA, was associated with a significant drop in risk for cancer. They found that for non-exercising adults, as few as 3.7 minutes of per day of short-burst activities such as fast walking or stair climbing, even when divided into one- or two-minute intervals, was associated with as much as an 18% reduction in cancer risk. Those risk reductions rose to as much as 32% when participants achieved an average of 4.5 total minutes of VILPA per day.

The Study

Researchers focused on a specific group of 22,398 non-exercising participants who wore wrist accelerometers to record PA over a seven-day period as part of the UK Biobank accelerometry substudy. The participants reported no leisure time PA and one or fewer recreational walks per week, although for many, the accelerometers recorded VILPA — one- to two-minute bouts of vigorous PA in the course daily living. Authors of the study divided bouts into one and two-minute groupings then followed up (average follow-up time: 1.2 years) in June of 2021 to track cancer diagnoses and in October of 2021 to track hospitalizations and deaths, using the data to determine a potential dose-response relationship between VILPA and risk of cancer and cancer-related mortality. Researchers also teased out those risk relationships for 13 types of cancer in which PA Is known to play a significant role in risk reduction: esophageal, liver, lung, kidney, gastric cardia, myeloid leukemia, myeloma, colorectal, bladder, endometrial, breast, and head and neck. The authors labeled these "PA-related" cancer types.


The 23,398 participants had an average age of 62 and included 10,122 men (45.2%) and 12,276 women (54.8%). Nearly all (96%) were white. During follow up, 2,356 new cancer diagnoses were recorded. In their analysis, researchers also tracked other factors such as tobacco use, alcohol use, family history of cancer, and education. Participants were excluded from the study if they had prevalent cancer or cancer in remission, experienced a cancer event within one year of accelerometer use, or recorded insufficient accelerometer data.


  • Engagement in VILPA was prevalent, with only 6.2% of participants recording no PA of that type.
  • In both the one- and two-minute test groups, the median daily average was 4.5 minutes, with a maximum of 16 minutes. This was associated with a 31%-32% reduction in cancer incidence.
  • In terms of achieving risk reductions of significance, up to one-minute bouts of VILPA totaling 3.4 minutes per day were associated with a 17% reduction in risk for cancer overall; a 3.7-minute total was associated with a 27% reduction in PA-related cancers.
  • Results in the two-minute grouping was nearly the same as the one-minute analysis.
  • Factoring out BMI and underweight, as well as excluding patients in poor health, did not significantly change the results.

Why It Matters

While achieving recommended levels of PA is optimal, researchers are also finding correlations between small amounts of exercise and health benefits for coronary and cardiovascular problemsdepression, and now, cancer risk. Authors of this study point out that the findings can help providers improve outcomes for patients either unmotivated or unable to engage in longer-duration bouts of PA.

Keep in Mind …

Authors acknowledge that participants' self-reported background information on leisure-time PA was recorded more than five years before the accelerometry baseline, but note that the reports remained highly stable over time among those participants who engaged in repeat examinations.

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