Just four-and-a-half minutes of vigorous activity during daily tasks could reduce the risk of some cancers by up to 32%, according to a large-scale observational study that used data from wearables. Vigorous Intermittent Lifestyle Physical Activity, or ‘VILPA’, was associated with a substantially lower cancer risk in those who engaged in some compared to those who did none. This study could impact thinking about the biological basis for the role of exercise in cancer prevention.
The work, published in JAMA Oncology, involved an international team led by researchers at the University of Sydney, Australia.
Regular exercise has long been linked to lower cancer risk. But most studies have looked at moderate or high levels of exercise. VILPA is a term coined by researchers at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney to describe very short bursts of vigorous activity—around one minute each—done with “gusto” each day. This includes vigorous housework, carrying heavy shopping around the grocery store, bursts of power walking, or playing high-energy games with the kids.
“VILPA is a bit like applying the principles of High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) to your everyday life,” says the study’s lead author, Emmanuel Stamatakis of the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre.
The team used data from wearable devices to track the daily activity of over 22,000 people. The data was from the UK Biobank Accelerometry Sub Study and only included those who identified as ‘non-exercisers’. The researchers then followed the group’s clinical health records for close to seven years to monitor for cancer.
“We know the majority of middle-aged people don’t regularly exercise which puts them at increased cancer risk but it’s only through the advent of wearable technology like activity trackers that we are able to look at the impact of short bursts of incidental physical activity done as part of daily living,” says Stamatakis.
Theories of the biological basis of this association include that regular physical activity reduces systemic inflammation, hyperinsulinemia, insulin-like growth factor, sex hormones, pro-inflammatory leptin and other obesity-related cytokines. It has also been reported that “exercise induces the metabolic reprogramming of internal organs that increases nutrient demand and protects against metastatic colonization by limiting nutrient availability to the tumor, generating an exercise-induced metabolic shield,” (Sheinboim, D. et al. Cancer Research, 2022).
“It’s quite remarkable to see that upping the intensity of daily tasks for as little as four to five minutes a day, done in short bursts of around one minute each, is linked to an overall reduction in cancer risk by up to 18%, and up to 32% for cancer types linked to physical activity,” Stamakis adds.
This study analyzed the impact of VILPA on overall cancer incidence, and for 13 cancer sites including liver, lung, kidney, gastric cardia (a type of stomach cancer), endometrial, myeloid leukemia, myeloma, colorectal, head and neck, bladder, breast, and esophageal adenocarcinoma. It included data from 22,398 people with an average age of 62, who said they didn’t exercise in their leisure time.
These researchers found:
- A minimum of around 3.5 mins of daily VILPA was associated with up to 18% reduction in cancer incidence. 4.5 mins of daily VILPA was associated with up to 32% reduction in cancer incidence.
- The steepest gains in cancer risk reduction were seen in people who did small amounts of VILPA compared to those who did none, however, benefits continued with higher levels of daily VILPA.
- The most VILPA (92%) occurred in bouts of up to 1 min.
“We need to further investigate this link through robust trials, but it appears that VILPA may be a promising cost-free recommendation for lowering cancer risk in people who find structured exercise difficult or unappealing,” Stamatakis says.