Lack of exercise is twice as likely to lead to an early grave as obesity, research has shown.
A brisk 20-minute walk each day could be all it takes to avoid dying prematurely, the findings suggest.
Scientists looked at the effects of obesity and exercise on 334,161 European men and women whose progress was followed for 12 years. They found that people who engaged in moderate levels of daily exercise – equivalent to taking an energetic 20-minute walk – were 16% to 30% less likely to die than those classified as inactive.
Although the impact of exercise was greatest among people of a normal weight, even those with a high body mass index (BMI) levels saw a benefit.
Overall, avoiding inactivity theoretically reduced the risk of death from any cause by 7.35%, said the scientists. Having a BMI lower than obesity levels, defined as a score of 30 or more, was estimated to lower mortality by 3.66%. Keeping waists trim, irrespective of BMI, had a similar impact on death rates as exercise.
BMI is calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by their height in metres squared and is a standard tool used to assess whether someone is overweight or obese.
Lack of exercise was thought to have caused almost 700,000 deaths across Europe in 2008.
Study leader Prof Ulf Ekelund, from the Medical Research Council (MRC) epidemiology unit at Cambridge University, said: “This is a simple message: just a small amount of physical activity each day could have substantial health benefits for people who are physically inactive.
“Although we found that just 20 minutes would make a difference, we should really be looking to do more than this – physical activity has many proven health benefits and should be an important part of our daily life.”
Participants in the research, who had an average age of about 50, were recruited to the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer (Epic) study conducted across 10 European countries, including the UK. All had their height, weight and waist sizes measured and provided self-assessments of physical activity levels.
Just under a quarter (22.7%) were categorised as inactive, working in sedentary jobs without engaging in any recreational exercise.
The findings, which are published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, say the greatest reductions in the risk of premature death were seen when comparing moderately active groups with those who were completely inactive.
Using the most recent available public data, the researchers calculated that 337,000 of the 9.2m deaths that occurred in Europe in 2008 could be attributed to obesity, but physical inactivity was thought to be responsible for almost double this number – 676,000 deaths.
Co-author Prof Nick Wareham, director of the MRC epidemiology unit, said: “Helping people to lose weight can be a real challenge and, whilst we should continue to aim at reducing population levels of obesity, public health interventions that encourage people to make small but achievable changes in physical activity can have significant health benefits and may be easier to achieve and maintain.”
June Davison, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: “The results of this study are a clear reminder that being regularly physically active can reduce the risk of dying from coronary heart disease.
“The research suggests that just a modest increase in physical activity can have health benefits. Adults should aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week, carrying it out in sessions of 10 minutes or more.
“Whether it’s going for a walk, taking a bike ride or using the stairs instead of the lift, keeping active every day will help reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease.”
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