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This January, we’re on the search for quick, accessible hacks to kickstart 2023 in the strongest way possible. Today’s strength kickstarter: is VILPA the magic fitness hack that science suggests? 

In very good news for gym-phobes, new research conducted by the University of Sydney suggests that a “vigorous” lifestyle reduces the risk of premature death and, in particular, deaths caused by cardiovascular disease. Researchers looked at the benefits of vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity, or VILPA, and the results make for interesting reading. 

VILPA is defined as very short bursts of vigorous activity that we do at least three times every day. Think: running for the bus, housework, walking uphill – that kind of thing. Enough to make us slightly breathless, but not full-on sweating.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But before we all quit the gym because we do the weekly shop and some occasional hoovering, we’ve asked the experts whether VILPA really is as good as it sounds. 

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What isVILPA?

“VILPA is very short bouts of vigorous activity (up to two minutes),” explains head coach and founder of Real World Results Ryan Atkin. “Examples include walking faster than normal, digging the garden, or carrying the food shop home or to your car.

“We can do VILPA with enthusiasm each and every day – playing high-energy games with the kids, doing errands, running for the bus and so on.”

What are the benefits of VILPA?

Researchers are suggesting three rounds of VILPA lasting one minute each are associated with reduced risk of premature death and death related to cardiovascular health.

“The statistics certainly seem to speak for themselves,” agrees fitness expert and owner of Wolf Approach Fitness, Kirsten Whitehouse. “Much lower mortality rates coupled with a lower incident rate of serious illness including heart disease and some cancers are certainly worth taking seriously.”

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Aside from the undeniable health benefits, the advantages of VILPA are numerous. “The pros of VILPA are pretty obvious,” agrees Atkin. “As it’s short bouts of intense exercise it will easily fit into your day, and for those that don’t like the gym it’s ideal as can be done anywhere. It’s simply adding more energy and enthusiasm into the things you do day to day for short bursts of time – it’s a case of more effort not more time which is useful for those leading busy lives.”

And let’s not forget the fact that the fitness market can be pricey, but clearly VILPA doesn’t require membership or special workout clothes, so could be a great solution to making fitness more accessible and inclusive. 

Activities like carrying groceries, lugging children around or running for the bus all count.

Is VILPA really enough to increase fitness?

“There’s no doubt that an increased (exercise induced) heart rate will strengthen your heart muscle as well as bringing vital nutrients and oxygen to your organs and tissue quicker than normal,” explains Whitehouse. “Pushing your heart rate up regularly can help with reducing your blood pressure, lowering your resting heart rate and therefore lower your chances of serious illness and untimely death.”

“All movement counts,” agrees Atkin. “Moving more day to day is great for your overall health and wellbeing, and VILPA could be a part of that. But while it sounds promising, there are downsides.”

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Risk of injury/illness

“What the studies are not making clear, in my opinion, is the increased risk of injury and ill-health that go hand in hand with suddenly participating in vigorous activities,” warns Whitehouse.

Whitehouse explains that going from zero to 100 can have ramifications on injury risk. “Running for a bus is all well and good in getting the heart pumping, but if your usual daily activity is at most a gentle stroll, you may sustain injuries such as pulled muscles and stress fractures. What is more, as poor coordination and balance are often seen in those who don’t exercise regularly, you might be more likely to fall and hurt yourself more seriously.”

It’s certainly something to bear in mind – it’s never a good idea to go from zero to full-scale workouts in one fell swoop. 

The benefits only apply to people with sedentary lifestyles

“It’s also worth noting that the subjects of the study were mainly those that do not regularly exercise,” cautions Whitehouse. “In fact, part of the study specifically and repeatedly references non-exercisers, and this is the issue with VILPA research and associated recommendations in my opinion.

“If you take an average woman who leads a fairly sedentary lifestyle and suddenly push their heart rate up considerably four to 11 times a day, you will usually see positive side effects. Your heart is a muscle and regular training tends to make it healthier.” 

“Doing something is certainly better than not doing anything at all,” stresses Whitehouse. “I like to challenge clients who tell me they have no time, money or inclination to exercise regularly, to think of ways to put more movement into their everyday life, be that walking to the local shop, doing a few squats while waiting for the kettle to boil, or taking the stairs instead of the lift: every little helps.”

“The advantages of VILPA as a whole are that working out in this way reaches more people – those who don’t partake in regular exercise or are not willing to – so more of us can feel fitter and healthier, and this has to be a good thing,” agrees Atkin. 

“However, structured exercise is still the better option of the two,” advises Whitehouse. “With a structured regime, you’ll improve muscle tone (maintaining better balance) and bone density (lowering your risk of osteoporosis and fractures) as well as benefitting your heart health.

“Remember also the mental health benefits of regular exercise. Mental and physical wellbeing go hand-in-hand, and while you might experience a quick rush of endorphins after VILPA, these will be more short-lived than the feelgood you’ll get during time spent running in the woods or training in the gym.”

So, it seems that while VILPA is a great way to start to build more physical activity into our lives, it’s not a complete substitute for a structured, regular exercise regime. But, as Whitehouse recommends, be sure to take time to build a solid foundation from which to progress safely and sustainably.

Images: Getty

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