Weight loss, increased energy levels, better mood, higher self-esteem...the benefits of working out regularly seem endless. Now, a study offers conclusive evidence that one type of exercise can help you live longer.

According to researchers at the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) can drastically reduce death rates. Of the 16,741 women who participated in the study, released in November, over four years, those who did MVPA had 60-70% lower mortality rates than those with sedentary lifestyles. In an email interview, Prof. I-Min Lee, of Harvard’s department of epidemiology and the study’s lead author, says: “Self-report studies showed that physical activity is associated with a 20-30% reduction in mortality rates. But in this study, using device-measured physical activity, we observed a much higher risk reduction."

Modest moves, major benefits

Light biking, swimming, brisk walking or any activity that involves moving your body at a moderate-to-vigorous pace is considered to be a form of MVPA.

Shayamal Vallabhjee, sports scientist and managing director of the HEAL Institute, a Navi Mumbai-based sports medicine, injury prevention and management service, says the term MVPA was coined for activities that offer health, and not fitness-oriented, benefits. “By health benefits, we refer to activities that reduce your risk of chronic and lifestyle diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes mellitus, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. It does not refer to activities that lead to a significant increase in heart rate, sweating, panting, etc," he says.

Moderate-intensity activities are exercises that clock in at 3-6 METs (metabolic equivalents) or get you moving fast enough to burn off three-six times energy per minute compared to when you are sitting quietly (MET is a way that exercise physiologists estimate the number of calories burnt during physical activity. It is estimated that the energy cost of sitting is one MET). Vigorous-intensity activities burn more than 6 METs.

Mumbai-based fitness trainer Yasmin Karachiwala explains why MVPA is good for heart health. “Instead of pushing yourself hard, you are giving your body the workout that it requires, plus the time to recover during the workout," she says.

Another study was conducted by Sheffield Hallam University in January, and explored in the BBC documentary The Truth About Getting Fit on 31 January. Prof. Rob Copeland, who led this study, demonstrated that three short brisk walks were easier to fit into the day, and better for health, than a 10,000-step goal. “It’s when you are doing moderate-intensity activity that you are starting to get the greatest health benefits," he says in the documentary.

Prof. Lee offers an easy way to gauge if you’re doing the MVPA training right. “Moderate intensity is a level that gets your heart rate up; you should be able to talk while doing the activity, but you should not be able to sing. If you can sing , it is not intense enough," she explains.

Contrary to myth, we do not need to exercise a lot to start enjoying the benefits of MVPA. “But it does need to be done regularly," says Vallabhjee. It also lessens the risk of injury (such as a muscle pull) than if you only did the whole recommended 150 minutes in one-two days.

The MVPA workout

So what kind of MVPA routines should people opt for to live a longer life? Konika Luke, fitness specialist and director at gym chain Urban Fitness Retail and Gyms, puts together a 150-minute weekly MVPA routine. “Broadly, the MVPA exercise recommendations can be met through 90 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (spread across five days per week) and 60 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise (spread across three days per week)," she says, recommending two-three days of resistance exercise training to enhance muscle strength.

A vigorous exercise could be: 30 minutes of fast cycling/jogging/tennis.

A moderate workout could be: 20 minutes of vigorous house cleaning/75 minutes of brisk walking/30 minutes of light swimming.

The exercise plan can be split across the week, so long as the activity occurs in at least 10-minute bouts.

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