August 2019 Issue

Focus on Fitness: High-Intensity Incidental Physical Activity
By Jennifer Van Pelt, MA
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 21, No. 8, P. 50

Updated US Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines, published in November 2018, substantially changed physical activity recommendations by eliminating the minimum time requirement of at least 10 minutes per session. Key messaging now focuses on “something is better than nothing,” which should more effectively encourage sedentary individuals to become more active.1 Following this guideline release, international researchers from Australia, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Norway published an editorial promoting high-intensity incidental physical activity (HIIPA) as a new public health and clinical strategy to increase daily activity in sedentary, overweight, and obese individuals. These researchers define incidental physical activity as “any activity that is part of one’s daily living that is not done with the purpose of recreation or health and requires no sacrifice of discretionary time.” Such activities would include climbing stairs, walking from car to store, carrying groceries, and cleaning; it wouldn’t include a planned exercise session, such as walking on a treadmill or taking a fitness class.2

The concept of HIIPA was introduced within the last year, emerging from international research into incidental physical activity benefits and recent research supporting the benefits of short high-intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions for individuals of any fitness level—from deconditioned beginners to professional athletes. While HIIPA is a new concept for improving health, incidental physical activity isn’t. For more than 20 years, researchers have been studying the role of incidental physical activity in improving heart health and losing and managing body weight, especially for individuals who don’t or can’t exercise for various reasons. HIIPA involves doing those incidental daily activities at a high enough intensity to raise the heart and breathing rate, similar to that which occurs during a HIIT workout. According to the international researchers promoting HIIPA, increasing the intensity of incidental physical activity so that one is “huffing and puffing” for even just a few seconds can provide health benefits.

Another key benefit is that HIIPA requires no additional time during the day as a planned exercise session does. In a press release announcing the publication of their scientific editorial on HIIPA, lead researcher Emmanual Stamatakis, PhD, a professor of physical activity, lifestyle, and population health in Australia’s University of Sydney Charles Perkins Centre and School of Public Health, states, “We know from several large studies of middle-aged and older adults that doing vigorous exercise has great long-term health benefits, but many people find it very difficult to start and stick to an exercise program. The beauty of HIIPA and the idea of using activities we are already doing as part of everyday life is that it is much more realistic and achievable for most people.”3 Because individuals are already performing incidental physical activity throughout their day, there are none of the barriers that typically prevent regular planned exercise, such as lack of time, costs of gym memberships and home exercise equipment, self-consciousness when exercising in public, lower level of fitness, and lack of commitment.2

Published research on HIIT shows that it effectively and rapidly improves fitness and heart health—and high-intensity activity doesn’t need to be high impact or include heavy weightlifting. What is considered high-intensity varies with the individual, their fitness level, age, and weight. So, an overweight, deconditioned older adult significantly can increase intensity of incidental physical activity simply by moving a bit faster when walking or cleaning. Short bursts of more intense activity (seconds to a minute) throughout the day easily add up for HIIPA. In their editorial, Stamatakis and his colleagues suggest that three to five short HIIPA sessions totaling only five to 10 minutes daily, performed on most days of the week, could provide significant health benefits for sedentary individuals.2

Advice for Clients
HIIPA is easily integrated into most sedentary lifestyles. Start with an assessment of daily activity, making sure not to inadvertently exclude opportunities. For example, even walking down the driveway to pick up a morning newspaper or the mail can be turned into a HIIPA session. Asking clients to make a list of every time they move during the day, including driving trips, rather than a list of their physical activities, will help capture the most opportunities for integrating HIIPA. Clients may not accurately list all of their daily movements if they associate the phrase “physical activity” with “exercise.”

Although the concept of HIIPA was only recently introduced, and the updated guidelines only reduced the time duration for physical activity benefits in 2018, fitness professionals have been counseling clients that “anything is better than nothing” and to move more, even if only for a minute, for many years. Aerobic capacity and strength can be improved only with gradual increases in intensity—but those who are inactive need to start small before progressing to longer exercise sessions. However, this gradual progression to improved fitness also applies to HIIPA.

In addition, some individuals may never progress to planned exercise. In fact, planned exercise may intimidate or not interest many people. Now that research supports that incidental physical activity can provide health benefits, encouraging clients to engage in HIIPA at home may be a more successful strategy to improve health than recommending they go to a gym or plan home workouts. Examples of HIIPA include the following:

• When walking somewhere around the house or on an errand, walk fast enough (including longer strides and pumping arms) to increase heart and breathing rate. Park farther away from stores and errand locations to increase the duration and intensity of HIIPA.

• Turn outdoor chores such as gardening, sweeping, and raking into a HIIPA session by periodically speeding up movements for at least 10 seconds. Gradually increase the length of time of more intense movements to 30 seconds or a minute at a time.

• Choose to take the stairs instead of elevators or escalators and try to increase stepping speed for several steps at a time.

• Instead of watching children and pets play, move with them, playing chase or doing squats to pick up toys or play games.

• Try to add short bursts of “speed cleaning” while mopping, vacuuming, dusting, etc.
The goal should be to increase intensity enough to be breathing rapidly—“huffing and puffing”—for very brief intervals. Wearing a fitness tracking or heart rate monitoring device may help some clients with daily HIIPA sessions and motivation. As clients increase their fitness with HIIPA, interest in progressing to planned exercise also may increase.

The researchers promoting HIIPA hope that updated guidelines and their research will boost public health and primary care initiatives to get sedentary individuals moving to improve overall health outcomes. New research on measuring the potential health improvements associated with HIIPA is ongoing.2

— Jennifer Van Pelt, MA, is a certified group fitness instructor and health care researcher in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area.


1. US Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Published 2018.

2. Stamatakis E, Johnson NA, Powell L, Hamer M, Rangul V, Holtermann A. Short and sporadic bouts in the 2018 US physical activity guidelines: is high-intensity incidental physical activity the new HIIT? [published online February 20, 2019]. Br J Sports Med. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2018-100397.

3. The new exercise trend that is made for everyone. The University of Sydney website. Published February 21, 2019.