Published on 15 January 2015

Researchers in Norway have found that an inactive lifestyles cause almost twice as many deaths as obesity.

However, the risk of premature death can be reduced significantly – by taking up physical activity. As little as 20 minutes a day could make a big difference.

The findings, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutritionfollowed a comprehensive study of Europeans health by NIH (Norges Idrettshøgskole – the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences).

Being obese can cause serious health problems, including type 2 diabetes, but the team at NIH were “surprised” at how big an additional risk factor being inactive was.

A new study suggests being inactive could be a major health risk

Inactivity has long been associated with increased risk of heart disease, cancer and premature death. "Premature death" means the reduced life one gets as a result of a risk factor, such as obesity, smoking or inactivity. 

Professor Ulf Ekelund at NIH said: “We knew that physical inactivity is a major risk factor, but we were surprised when we found that the entire 676,000 Europeans die each year as a result of physical inactivity. Our data shows that twice as many die of inactivity of obesity.”

The researchers followed 334,161 men and women in 10 European countries over a period of 12 years.

They measured height, weight and waist circumference, while participants registered physical activity level in the largest study of its kind to date.

Participants in the study were divided into four groups according to activity level. Those who were described as completely inactive had sedentary jobs and reported no physical activity at leisure. Almost a quarter of participants in the study ended up in this group.

The researchers found the greatest difference between the inactive and the moderate active group. A small change in activity level thus had great effect.

A man sitting on a sofa watching TV.

Professor Ekelund added: “The message is simple. Even a small percentage of physical activity each day can have significant health benefits for inactive individuals. Just 20 minutes of moderate physical activity a day actually reduces the risk of premature death by between 16 and 30%, regardless of whether one is overweight or not.”

Moderate physical activity is the equivalent of brisk walking, approximately 5km an hour. 

Professor Ekelund said he believed this was a manageable target for most people: “It's all about making small changes in their lives. For example, go to work, or maybe just go to the bus. One can even split up activity in such a ten minute walk in the morning and ten minutes in the afternoon, and achieve the same effect.”

Adding 20 minutes of phsyical activity to your daily routine could bring long-term health benefits

Although the researchers found that 20 minutes a day makes a big difference, they recommend more physical activity than this.

Professor Ekelund added: “Exercise has many proven health benefits and should be an important part of our daily lives.

“The population is moving increasingly gaining weight, despite public health interventions and education. To put the spotlight on inactivity may have greater benefit for public health.

“Moderate amounts of physical activity have a significant impact on health and are easier to maintain over time than dieting.

“We shall of course continue to work to reduce overweight and obesity in the population, but to help people lose weight can be a huge challenge. Public health campaigns that encourage a little more physical activity may be more successful because this goal is probably easier to achieve and maintain.”

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