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Exercise Lack Found Riskier than Obesity
Sedentary lifestyles kill people early twice as often as obesity; A daily 20-minute walk works wonders

01/19/2015 By Craig Weatherby
Obesity is rising worldwide, with dire consequences.

Obesity or being overweight are major risk factors for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other chronic conditions.

In part, this is because excess body fat – especially around the abdomen – causes the “silent” inflammation that promotes chronic diseases.

As well as driving common health disorders – and making physical tasks harder – excess body fat can cut your life short.

According to the World Health Organization, at least 2.6 million people die prematurely every year due to being overweight or obese.

Lack of physical activity has also been consistently linked to a higher risk of early death, as well as to greater risk of chronic diseases.

Importantly, the links found between sedentary lifestyles and early death apply to fatter and thinner folks alike.

Two years ago, a Canadian study came to the welcome conclusion that, as we wrote, “Exercise May Add Years of Life”.

Now, the results of a very large European study suggest that a brisk, 20-minute daily walk may reduce the risk of early death.

And they show that daily aerobic exercise – like brisk walking, running, cycling, or swimming – may protect life spans more than weight loss can.

By the way, a new approach to aerobic exercise  – high-intensity interval training – delivers maximum benefits in minimum time ... see “Exercise adds energy and joy”, below.

Let's take a look at the new study and its results ... which should be encouraging to folks carrying excess weight.

European study finds exercise beats weight loss for deterring early death
The study involved 334,161 men and women participating in the huge epidemiological study known as EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition).

Between 1992 and 2000, researchers measured the participants' height, weight, and waist circumference, and asked them questions designed to quantify the volunteers' levels of physical activity at work and home (Ekelund U et al. 2015).

Just under a quarter (22.7 percent) of participants were categorized as inactive, because they had a sedentary occupation and reported having no exercise routine or significant physical recreation.

The participants were then followed for more than 12 years, during which time 21,438 participants died.

A team of EPIC researchers compared the participants' weight and activity levels to their risk of death, and adjusted the results to account for other known risk factors.

The results linked twice as many deaths to lack of physical activity, compared with fatalities attributable to obesity.

Encouragingly, the analysis showed that modest increases in physical activity could have significant health benefits.

The authors estimate that doing exercise equivalent to just a 20 minute brisk walk each day – burning between 90 and 110 calories – would reduce an inactive person's risk of premature death by an average of 23 percent.

They also found that the greatest reduction in risk of premature death occurred in the comparison between inactive and moderately inactive groups.

The impact was greatest among normal-weight people, but even those with higher BMI (body mass index) saw a benefit.

The takeaway message is simple: just a short but brisk daily walk – or equivalent amount of other aerobic exercise – could extend lifespans and enhance health among physically inactive people.

Exercise adds energy and joy as well as years
Professor Ulf Ekelund, Ph.D., of the University of Cambridge led the study.

As he said, “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.” (UC 2015)

Clearly, it pays to keep from becoming overweight, since it is much harder to lose a substantial amount of weight and keep it off.

Ekelund's University of Cambridge colleague, Professor Nick Wareham, Ph.D., acknowledged the difficulty of permanent weight loss: “Helping people to lose weight can be a real challenge ... [while] ... small but achievable changes in physical activity can have significant health benefits and may be easier to achieve and maintain.”

And you can gain bigger benefits than a 20-minute daily walk will deliver, by alternating high-intensity and low-intensity exercise in equally short sessions. 

For more on the research behind this exercise pattern – called high-intensity interval training – see “Secret to Successful, Sustainable Exercise”.

Prior research shows that – aside from being generally healthful and helping you feel good – exercise brings some specific benefits. See “Exercise as Brain-Saver”, “Can Walking Improve Creativity?”, and “Feeling Tired? Take a Walk!”.


Sources
  • Ekelund U, Ward HA, Norat T et al. Physical activity and all-cause mortality across levels of overall and abdominal adiposity in European men and women: the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition Study (EPIC). Am J Clin Nutr March 2015 ajcn.100065. January 14, 2015, doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.100065. Accessed at http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/early/2015/01/14/ajcn.114.100065.abstract?sid=52e70958-1663-4267-97ec-dccc6c375f6d
  • Golubic R, Ekelund U, Wijndaele K, Luben R, Khaw KT, Wareham NJ, Brage S. Rate of weight gain predicts change in physical activity levels: a longitudinal analysis of the EPIC-Norfolk cohort. Int J Obes (Lond). 2013 Mar;37(3):404-9. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2012.58. Epub 2012 Apr 24.
  • InterAct Consortium, Ekelund U, Palla L, et al. Physical activity reduces the risk of incident type 2 diabetes in general and in abdominally lean and obese men and women: the EPIC-InterAct Study. Diabetologia. 2012 Jul;55(7):1944-52. doi: 10.1007/s00125-012-2532-2. Epub 2012 Apr 21.
  • University of Cambridge (UC). Lack of exercise responsible for twice as many deaths as obesity. Accessed at http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/lack-of-exercise-responsible-for-twice-as-many-deaths-as-obesity