We all know that exercise is important for your overall health—its benefits go beyond the physical, it’s even essential to your mental wellness. Now, a new study shows that adding 20 minutes more exercise to your day could lessen your likelihood of future hospitalization due to a serious medical condition.
The study, published in JAMA Network Open, used data from 81,717 UK Biobank participants 42 to 78 years old. Participants wore an accelerometer, a type of fitness tracker, for one week (between June 1, 2013, and December 23, 2015) and researchers followed up with them over 7 years. Those participants with a medical history of a condition were excluded from the analysis specific to that condition—so, a person who already had gallbladder disease was excluded from the analysis for that specific condition.
Time spent in sedentary activity (like driving or watching television), light physical activity (like cooking or self-care), moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (ie. walking the dog or jogging), and sleep were estimated using wearable cameras and time-use diaries among 152 individuals in normal living conditions.
After assessing the activity levels of the participants, researchers used a modeling technique to substitute 20 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for sedentary behavior. They found that adding only 20 minutes of physical activity proved to significantly reduce potential future hospitalizations.
Further driving the researchers’ point home, higher levels of physical activity were associated with lower risks of hospitalization for the following nine conditions: gallbladder disease, urinary tract infections, diabetes (both type 1 and type 2), venous thromboembolism, pneumonia, ischemic stroke, iron deficiency anemia, diverticular disease, and colon polyps. Increasing physical activity by only 20 minutes per day was linked to reductions in hospitalization ranging from 3.8% for colon polyps to 23% for diabetes.
Overall, these findings suggest that increasing physical activity by just 20 minutes a day can effectively reduce the risk of hospitalization across a broad range of medical conditions.
Exercise and increased physical activity can improve the overall ability to adapt to stressors and decrease frailty, says Dr. Johannes. “It may also reduce the risk of comorbidities, such as ischemic heart disease (coronary artery disease), diabetes, and deconditioning, which can complicate an illness.” Reducing the risk for comorbidities may mean that a medical concern, like a urinary tract infection or pneumonia, may be less severe and in turn, more treatable out of the hospital—therefore preventing hospitalization, he explains.
Since exercise has been associated with a lower risk of ischemic heart disease, it is not surprising that exercise and physical activity are associated with a lower risk of hospitalization due to stroke, which itself is often linked to heart disease, says Dr. Johannes. Exercise can often also improve diabetes management through increasing muscle sensitivity to insulin, so it is not surprising that it is associated with a lower risk of hospitalization due to diabetes complications, he adds.
However, Dr. Johannes explains, it’s important to keep in mind that some of the people who are prone to hospitalization for these certain conditions may have underlying issues that prevent them from being as active, meaning that their lack of physical activity is a result of their medical conditions rather than the other way around.
This study includes walking as moderate to vigorous exercise, so I think this is a great starting point, says Jimmy Johannes, M.D., pulmonologist and critical care medicine specialist at MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center. “I generally recommend starting out with 10-15 minutes of walking per day, two to three days per week and gradually increasing the time, intensity, and days per week.” For those who have a difficult time fitting exercise into their daily routine, tracking steps with an activity tracker (like on a smartphone or a watch) can help motivate people to stay active by, for instance, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, he adds.
“I recommend getting at least 5,000 steps per day and ideally 7,500 steps or more per day. But in general, something is better than nothing,” says Dr. Johannes.
Exercise can improve strength, balance, energy, mood, cognition, and self-image, says Dr. Johannes. In regard to this new study’s findings, “I think this is more supporting evidence that increased physical activity is associated with better health outcomes. This study provides additional insights about the association between physical activity and lower risk of hospitalization for various conditions that are not typically linked with physical fitness, such as urinary tract infections, gallbladder disease, and pneumonia,” he explains.
At least 150-300 minutes per week is known to lead to a 30-40% reduction in mortality, says Meagan Wasfy, M.D., M.P.H., sports cardiologist from Mass General Brigham. “Exercise can help with risk factors such as blood pressure, blood cholesterol levels, weight management, and type 2 diabetes risk.”
Ultimately, higher levels of physical activity are linked to better long-term health outcomes and decreased risk of hospitalizations for a whole host of conditions across the board, says Dr. Wasfy.