Short-term exercise can lead to long-term heart improvements

Increasing your steps by just 1200 a day results in a noticeable reduction in your risk of cardiovascular-related death, new research has found.

But the data revealed something even better – that little boosts to your activity levels often spur big changes to your long-term behaviour, lowering your risk of premature death even further.

It’s no secret that regular exercise is a key part of keeping your heart healthy and functioning properly. We’ve all heard you need to walk 10,000 steps a day to stave off the effects of cardiovascular disease, but let’s face it, 10,000 steps every day is a lot.

The Australian government recommends adults get 30 to 45 minutes of moderate exercise (e.g. walking), at least five times a week in order to keep your heart healthy.

Many (if not most) people might wince a little at the thought of walking that much each day, me included, and sometimes such lofty exercise goals make it hard to even get started. Why even try when you know you’ll never get near your goal? It can be very demotivating.

But don’t let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good’, as they say. Walking a few extra steps each day will absolutely make a difference when it comes to your heart, even if you’re not reaching 10,000 – and this research shows that all it takes to get started is a little reminder.

Improving, even a little, is hard

The study, conducted by the US National Institutes of Health, followed the exercise habits of more than 1000 adults identified as being at-risk for major cardiovascular events, between 2019 and 2024.

The study was designed to find out how to motivate people to increase their daily exercise habits. Before the study began, all participants logged a daily average of about 5000 steps.

Participants wore a fitness tracker connected to an online monitor which allowed researchers to count their baseline daily step count. Each participant then set a personal goal to increase their daily steps by 33 per cent, 40 per cent, 50 per cent, or more than 1500 steps from their starting point.

Participants were then split into four groups, based on the different types of exercise ‘incentives’ they would receive.

One group was given ‘game-like’ incentives to increase their exercise levels. Each participant received points every week and kept them by meeting their daily step goals. On days they failed to meet their goals, they lost points. Participants with enough points moved up a level and participants who failed to meet goals moved down a level.

The next group was given financial incentives. Each participant received $14 each week, but lost $2 a day if they did not meet their step targets.

The third group received a mixture of both game-like and financial incentives.

The fourth group was the control group and received no incentives other than daily messages on their fitness trackers that noted their step count.

What motivates doesn’t matter

You’d probably think the financial incentives would increase exercise levels the most, with game features and reminders being not as effective. But this was not what the researchers found.

Pleasingly, after following them for 18 months, all participants recorded increases to their daily step count of at least 1200, regardless of their motivator.

The improvements resulted in an average extra 40 minutes of moderate exercise each week, which the researchers found correlated with a 6 per cent reduced risk of premature death and a 10 per cent reduced risk of death from cardiovascular events, compared to data used from previous studies.

Those in the game-incentive group walked an extra 538 steps from their baseline amount, while those who received financial incentives walked an extra 492. While this is in an improvement, the researchers say were surprised by how little effect these incentives had over baseline performance.

Cardiologist Dr Alexander Fanaroff, lead author of the study, says the results show that any kind of immediate reminder seems to improve exercise levels.

“The interventions created immediate benefits for participants – and they worked,” he says

“Research shows it’s easier to think about today instead of the future, whether it’s exercising more to support long-term heart health or saving for a future goal.”

So, all it might take to get you up and moving is setting a little reminder on your phone, your heart will thank you for it.

How many times a week do you exercise? Do you think a simple reminder would be enough to get you moving? Let us know in the comments section below.

Also read: Reducing inflammation reduces your heart risk, data reveals

Brad Lockyer
Brad Lockyer
Brad has deep knowledge of retirement income, including Age Pension and other government entitlements, as well as health, money and lifestyle issues facing older Australians. Keen interests in current affairs, politics, sport and entertainment. Digital media professional with more than 10 years experience in the industry.
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