RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS PA—If you don’t exercise, you needn’t become a gym rat or a fitness freak to get huge fitness benefits. A little exercise goes a long way, an idea that’s convincingly proved by a study of exercise and mortality published this month inMedicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, the journal of the American College of Sports Medicine. The research, conducted by a team at the University of Otago in New Zealand, found that by simply bringing your activity level up from nonexistent to barest minimum, you can cut your risk of death in half.

THE DETAILS: The researchers examined exercise and mortality in veterans who were referred for treadmill testing from 1987 to 2006, during which their health histories, current medications, and treadmill results were recorded. Those who were healthy; about 4,384 vets, were divided into five groups and ranked according to their fitness levels. At the end of about nine years, the 20 percent of the group who had the lowest fitness levels were twice as likely to have died during the study period, compared to the 20 percent who were at the next-lowest fitness levels. The least fit group had similar overall exercise habits compared to the next-least-fit group, but significantly lower levels of recent recreational physical activity.

WHAT IT MEANS: Fitness benefits you even in small doses: Small gains in activity levels and overall fitness translate into big gains in health—if you keep at it. “Since it is recent physical activity that offers protection [from death], it’s important to maintain regular physical activity throughout your life,” lead study author Sandra Mandic, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in exercise physiology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, has said. That activity doesn’t have to be intense or extreme. In fact, it need only be minimal to move you from a level comparable to that of Mandic’s lowest-fitness-level group to that of her next-lowest-fitness-level group.

Here’s how to bring your fitness level up—and your risk of death down:

• Keep moving. Strive to get in 30 or more minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity like brisk walking five or more days a week. “Sixty-four percent of the least fit group in the study did not meet these minimal physical activity recommendations,” points out Dr. Mandic. And we know what happened to them.

• Mix it up. There are more ways to exercise than just running on a treadmill. Ballroom dancing, gardening, even doing some hectic housework can get your heart pumping and your muscles moving.

• Throw in with friends. Whether you start a daily lunchtime walking group or schedule a health club meet up, exercising with friends is a classic fitness motivator. You can even pool your funds to hire a personal trainer. Or get help from the best motivator of all and exercise with a dog.