The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate to higher-intensity physical activity each week, and it should be in bursts of at least 10 minutes each for substantial health benefits.
Which has led many to wonder about the inefficacy of brief activities. Why take two minutes going up the stairs if more than 10 minutes is required to make it worthwhile for health?
But now a study suggests something else: go ahead, take the stairs! Every minute counts toward reaching the 150-minute goal, whether it's part of a 10-minute bout or not.
The purpose of the study conducted at the University of Utah was to see if moderate to vigorous physical activity in less than 10-minute episodes related to weight outcomes.
The study, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, found that each minute spent engaging in some kind of moderate to vigorous physical activity — be it walking the dog, vacuuming, or taking the stairs — was associated with lower BMI and lower weight.
"The idea here is, you can do a minute at a time and that's not a problem," Jessie Fan, lead author of the new paper and a family and consumer studies professor at the University of Utah, told Today.
For the women who participated in the study, each minute spent in higher-intensity activity was associated with a .07 drop in body mass index (BMI). For a 5'4" woman, that means a loss of nearly half a pound, which may not sound like much, but that's just for one minute. They add up.
The authors concluded that the current 10-minute activity bouts guideline was based on health benefits other than weight outcomes and that their findings showed that for weight gain prevention, accumulated higher-intensity physical activity bouts of less than 10 minutes are quite beneficial, supporting the message that "every minute counts."
When it comes to your brain, that mantra also rings true. An April 2019 study in Jama Network Open looked at how exercise affected the brain, and even short bursts resulted in .22% greater brain volume.
"Our study results don’t discount moderate or vigorous physical activity as being important for healthy ageing. We are just adding to the science, suggesting that light-intensity physical activity might be important too, especially for the brain," Dr. Nicole Spartarno, first author of the study from Boston University, told The Guardian.
"I think it's easier for people to process that message," Fan says. "Otherwise, if they don't have a block of time they might be discouraged, and they don't do anything."
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was first published in September 2013.