Association of physical activity intensity and bout length with mortality: An observational study of 79,503 UK Biobank participants

PLoS Med. 2021 Sep 15;18(9):e1003757. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1003757. eCollection 2021 Sep.


Background: Spending more time active (and less sedentary) is associated with health benefits such as improved cardiovascular health and lower risk of all-cause mortality. It is unclear whether these associations differ depending on whether time spent sedentary or in moderate-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) is accumulated in long or short bouts. In this study, we used a novel method that accounts for substitution (i.e., more time in MVPA means less time sleeping, in light activity or sedentary) to examine whether length of sedentary and MVPA bouts associates with all-cause mortality.

Methods and findings: We used data on 79,503 adult participants from the population-based UK Biobank cohort, which recruited participants between 2006 and 2010 (mean age at accelerometer wear 62.1 years [SD = 7.9], 54.5% women; mean length of follow-up 5.1 years [SD = 0.73]). We derived (1) the total time participants spent in activity categories-sleep, sedentary, light activity, and MVPA-on average per day; (2) time spent in sedentary bouts of short (1 to 15 minutes), medium (16 to 40 minutes), and long (41+ minutes) duration; and (3) MVPA bouts of very short (1 to 9 minutes), short (10 to 15 minutes), medium (16 to 40 minutes), and long (41+ minutes) duration. We used Cox proportion hazards regression to estimate the association of spending 10 minutes more average daily time in one activity or bout length category, coupled with 10 minutes less time in another, with all-cause mortality. Those spending more time in MVPA had lower mortality risk, irrespective of whether this replaced time spent sleeping, sedentary, or in light activity, and these associations were of similar magnitude (e.g., hazard ratio [HR] 0.96 [95% CI: 0.94, 0.97; P < 0.001] per 10 minutes more MVPA, coupled with 10 minutes less light activity per day). Those spending more time sedentary had higher mortality risk if this replaced light activity (HR 1.02 [95% CI: 1.01, 1.02; P < 0.001] per 10 minutes more sedentary time, with 10 minutes less light activity per day) and an even higher risk if this replaced MVPA (HR 1.06 [95% CI: 1.05, 1.08; P < 0.001] per 10 minutes more sedentary time, with 10 minutes less MVPA per day). We found little evidence that mortality risk differed depending on the length of sedentary or MVPA bouts. Key limitations of our study are potential residual confounding, the limited length of follow-up, and use of a select sample of the United Kingdom population.

Conclusions: We have shown that time spent in MVPA was associated with lower mortality, irrespective of whether it replaced time spent sleeping, sedentary, or in light activity. Time spent sedentary was associated with higher mortality risk, particularly if it replaced MVPA. This emphasises the specific importance of MVPA. Our findings suggest that the impact of MVPA does not differ depending on whether it is obtained from several short bouts or fewer longer bouts, supporting the recent removal of the requirement that MVPA should be accumulated in bouts of 10 minutes or more from the UK and the United States policy. Further studies are needed to investigate causality and explore health outcomes beyond mortality.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Activity Cycles
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cause of Death
  • Exercise*
  • Female
  • Healthy Lifestyle*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Physical Exertion
  • Prospective Studies
  • Protective Factors
  • Risk Assessment
  • Risk Factors
  • Risk Reduction Behavior*
  • Sedentary Behavior*
  • Sleep
  • Time Factors
  • United Kingdom