An international team of scientists led by Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) has discovered the perfect cocktail of physical activity that could help you live a longer, healthier life.

Previous studies have looked at the impact of one type of activity or another in isolation, but this is the first piece of evidence that has found the best combination, or cocktail, of ingredients needed to prolong life.

The four-year study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, is the largest of its kind in the world, analysing data from six previous studies including more than 130,000 adults in the UK, US and Sweden.

The research, led by GCU’s Professor of Health Behaviour Dynamics Sebastien Chastin, used activity monitors on participants and a technique called compositional analysis to determine how different combinations of activities – including moderate to vigorous exercise (such as brisk walking, running, or other activities that increase heart rate), light physical activity (such as housework or casual walking), and sedentary behaviour – affect mortality. 

Although the current recommendation to do 30 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity reduces the odds of an earlier death by up to 80% for some – those who sat for less than seven hours – it did not reduce mortality risk for individuals who were very sedentary (over 11 to 12 hours per day), the researchers found.

Professor Chastin said: “Our new formula found that three minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per hour of sitting will get the balance right and help you live a longer, healthier life. The leftover hours should be spent generally moving around as much as you can and getting a good night’s sleep. This new cocktail, or simple formula, really boosts your health protection.

“Thirty minutes of physical activity per day or 150 minutes a week is what is recommended but you still have the potential to undo all that good work if you sit too long.

“We wanted to find out what the perfect cocktail of physical activity throughout a day was for maximum health in terms of the time spent sitting, exercising, just moving around, and sleeping, and how these all work together.

“The first thing we had to do was to introduce an entirely new concept into how we looked at activity data and used compositional data analysis, which has similarities to understanding how a mixture is put together, like a recipe or cocktail, to find out the best formula for health longevity.

“This is the largest study in the world into the best cocktail of activity for a longer life and protection against ill health. We analysed data from six different studies around the world that used sensors to measure movement on more than 130,000 people throughout the day. It’s really reliable data.”

The researchers also found that there were multiple combinations of activities associated with a 30% reduction in the odds of an early death: 

  • 55 minutes of exercise, 4 hours of light physical activity, and 11 hours of sitting
  • 13 minutes of exercise, 5.5 hours of light physical activity, and 10.3 hours of sitting
  • 3 minutes of exercise, 6 hours of light physical activity, and 9.7 hours of sitting

Co-author Keith Diaz, PhD, Assistant Professor of Behavioral Medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, added: For decades, we’ve been telling people that the way to stay healthy is to get at least 30 minutes of exercise five days a week.

“But even if you’re one of the few adults who can stick to this advice, 30 minutes represents just 2% of your entire day. Is it really possible that our activity habits for just 2% of the day is all that matters when it comes to health?

“In other words, it is not as simple as checking off that ‘exercise’ box on your to-do list. A healthy movement profile requires more than 30 minutes of daily exercise. Moving around and not remaining sedentary all day also matters.

“Our study shows that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to physical activity, and we get to choose which combinations of activities we like best ones. It may be more important to mix a movement ‘cocktail’ that includes a healthy dose of exercise and light activity to take the place of sitting.”