Published on 26 May 2015

Just half an hour of physical activity six times a week could reduce the risk of death in elderly men by up to 40%, according to a new study.

Although the study was not carried out specifically on people with type 2 diabetes, the call to get more exercise is good advice for those with the condition as an inactive lifestyle has been linked with poorer blood glucose control and a risk of developing further health complications.

The findings by researchers at Oslo University Hospital in Norway found that increases in the amount of exercise could be as much of a boost to health as giving up smoking.

Maintaining regular physical activity as part of an active lifestyle could add up to five years to life expectancy

A report on the Oslo II study was recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The authors of the report said 30 minutes of physical activity—irrespective of its intensity – over six days a week was linked to a 40% lower risk of death from any cause among elderly men.

The findings were based on people taking part in the original Oslo Study, which invited almost 26,000 men born between 1923 and 1932 for a health check in 1972-3 (Oslo I).

Of the 15,000 that took part, their height, weight, cholesterol and blood pressure were all assessed, and they were asked whether they smoked.

They were also asked to respond to a survey (the Gothenburg questionnaire) detailing their weekly leisure time and physical activity levels.

These were categorised as sedentary (non-physical activity that includes watching TV and reading); light (walking or cycling, including to and from work for at least four hours a week); moderate (formal exercise, sporting activities, heavy gardening for at least four hours a week); and vigorous (hard training or competitive sports several times a week).

In the year 2000 around 6,000 of the surviving men repeated the process for a follow-up study (Oslo II) and were monitored for almost 12 years to see if physical activity level over time was associated with a lowered risk of death from cardiovascular (heart) disease, or any cause, and if its impact were equivalent to quitting smoking.

During the monitoring period, 2,154 out of the 5,738 men who had gone through both health checks died.

The results showed that less than an hour a week of light physical activity was not linked with any meaningful reduction in risk of death from any cause. But more than an hour was linked to a 32% to 56% lower risk.

However, less than an hour of vigorous physical activity was linked to a reduction in risk of between 23% and 37% for cardiovascular disease and death from any cause.

Men who regularly engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity during their leisure time lived five years longer, on average, than those who were classified as sedentary (inactive).

It should be noted that this was an observational study so no definitive conclusions should be drawn about cause and effect, and the researchers pointed out that only the healthiest participants in the first wave of the study took part in  the second wave, which may have lowered overall absolute risk.

The authors of the report concluded: “More effort should go into encouraging elderly men to become more physically active, with doctors emphasising the wide range of ill health that could be warded off as a result.”

Sarah Bone, DRWF Chief Executive, said: “Exercise is generally low-cost and side-effect free. Increasing our levels of physical activity and moving away from sedentary lifestyles is vital to reduce health risks and improve quality of life. Even small changes in our activity levels can reap rewards.”

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