5 minutes of daily physical activity can reduce cancer risk.

5 minutes of daily physical activity can reduce cancer risk.

Short Bursts of Vigorous Physical Activity Can Lower Cancer Risk

Stairs Walking Image source: Westend61/Getty Images

Physical activity is essential for overall health and well-being. Regular exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) emphasizes that insufficient physical activity can increase the risk of premature death by 20–30% compared to active individuals.

Despite the clear importance of physical activity, a significant portion of the population fails to meet the recommended guidelines. Approximately 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men worldwide do not engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week. However, a recent study brings hope to those who struggle with structured vigorous exercise.

Led by Dr. Emmanuel Stamatakis, professor of physical activity, lifestyle, and population health at the University of Sydney, Australia, the study examined the effects of Vigorous Intermittent Lifestyle Physical Activity (VILPA) on cancer risk. The researchers analyzed data from wrist-worn accelerometers worn by 22,398 non-exercising adults, tracking their daily levels of vigorous activity and monitoring their health records for almost 7 years.

The findings of the study were remarkable. Just 4.5 minutes of VILPA per day, accumulated through 1-minute bursts of activity, was associated with a potential 32% reduced risk of cancer compared to no VILPA. The study highlighted that everyday activities such as stair climbing, carrying groceries, and power walking provide ample opportunities for vigorous physical activity.

What exactly is VILPA? Dr. Stamatakis and his team coined the term Vigorous Intermittent Lifestyle Physical Activity (VILPA) to describe short bouts of physical activity that are part of our daily lives. VILPA can include activities like walking uphill, climbing stairs, power walking, carrying children or groceries, and even vigorous housework. These brief and sporadic bursts of activity differ from traditional vigorous exercise, which is more continuous and structured.

To assess the relationship between VILPA and cancer occurrence, the researchers conducted a prospective cohort study using data from the UK Biobank. Participants included 22,398 individuals aged 40–69 years who reported no leisure-time exercise and took one or fewer recreational walks per week. The study population consisted mostly of white participants, with an average age of 62 years.

Over a mean follow-up period of 6.7 years, the researchers identified 2,356 new cancer events, such as cancer registration, hospitalization for cancer, or cancer-related deaths. Using a machine-learning technique called “random forest,” the researchers analyzed accelerometer-recorded data to classify physical activity based on intensity—vigorous, moderate, and light.

The analysis revealed that most episodes of VILPA occurred in short bursts of 1 or 2 minutes, with an average daily VILPA duration of about 4.5 minutes. The statistical findings showed an almost linear relationship between VILPA and cancer risk, indicating that the more VILPA an individual engaged in, the lower their risk of cancer.

Compared to individuals who did not perform any VILPA (6.2% of study participants), those who engaged in approximately 4.5 minutes of VILPA per day experienced a 20% lower risk of cancer. Notably, certain types of cancer associated with low levels of physical activity, including liver, lung, kidney, gastric cardia, endometrial, myeloid leukemia, myeloma, colorectal, head and neck, bladder, breast, and esophageal adenocarcinoma, showed a 31% reduced risk with 4.5 minutes of daily VILPA.

The study received positive feedback from experts in the field. Dr. David Raichlen, professor of biological sciences and anthropology at the University of Southern California, lauded the study for demonstrating a strong association between a relatively small amount of vigorous physical activity and reduced cancer risk. However, he emphasized that the study could not establish causality but suggested that future intervention studies using VILPA are warranted.

Similarly, Prof. Markus Gruber, chair of Training and Movement Science at the University Konstanz, praised the study’s data, methodology, and analysis. He remarked that VILPA aligns with the exercise science principle that intensity matters and is a promising alternative to traditional duration-based recommendations, especially for individuals averse to structured exercise.

While more research is needed to establish a causal link between VILPA and cancer risk, this study offers encouraging evidence that short bursts of vigorous physical activity can have a significant impact on lowering the risk of several types of cancer. So for those who find it difficult to engage in structured exercise, incorporating a few minutes of VILPA into their daily routine may be a valuable and cost-free option to promote better health and reduce cancer risk.


  1. Stamatakis, E., Lee, I.-M., Bennie, J., Freeston, J., Hamer, M., O’Donovan, G., … & Bauman, A. (2022). Short Bursts of Vigorous Intermittent Lifestyle Physical Activity and Cancer Incidence and Mortality: A Prospective Cohort Study of 22,398 Adults. JAMA Oncology, 8(1), 49-55. doi: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2021.2608