What a Walk Might Do for Your Health

Exercise like walking may increase your lifespan

(RxWiki News) Couch potatoes, get up and move. Exercise — even a little bit — could help you live longer.

A new study from the University of Cambridge found that a lack of exercise was more likely to be responsible for a shorter life than obesity. The authors of this study found that people who were least active could get the most benefit of any group just by adding a brisk, 20-minute walk each day.

"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," said Dr. Ulf Ekelund, of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge in the UK, in a press release. "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."

Ruby Elizabeth Kassanoff, MD, FACP, a board certified internal medicine specialist on the medical staff of Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, told dailyRx News both physical inactivity and obesity are major health problems. "Both have been linked to increased risk of heart disease and earlier death," said Dr. Kassanoff, who was not involved in this new study. "But which is more harmful: inactivity or obesity?

"In the early 2000s, two large studies found that lack of fitness and obesity were both independent risk factors for [death], because being fit did not completely reverse the increased risk associated with being overweight or obese. However, a more recent article in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases ... concluded that compared to fit individuals of normal weight, unfit individuals had twice the risk of [death] regardless of weight," Dr. Kassanoff said.

She told dailyRx News that exercise can prevent blood clots, lower the risk of heart disease, improve cholesterol, lower blood pressure, prevent diabetes, reduce anxiety and depression, and lower the risk for breast, prostate, colon and other cancers.

"The US Department of Health and Human Services agrees that exercise is crucial for good health —  their 2008 physical activity guidelines for Americans demonstrated that those who exercised 7 hours per week had a 40 percent reduction in risk of dying early compared to those who exercised less than 30 minutes per week," she said.

Dr. Kassanoff concluded by offering her advice. "Both maintenance of a healthy weight and regular exercise are important for long-term health," she said. "Talk to your doctor about your personal health risks. Once you get the 'all clear' to exercise, find an activity that interests you and get started!"

Dr. Ekelund and team used data from more than 330,000 patients who were a part of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC). Over a period of 12 years, these researchers collected patient data on height, weight and waist circumference. They also used self-assessment tools to measure patients’ levels of physical activity. Dr. Ekelund and team compared these factors to death rates for those in the study.

Both a lack of exercise and obesity have been tied to an increased risk of heart disease and earlier death, Dr. Ekelund and team noted. These researchers classed people as inactive if they had a sedentary job like working in an office and reported no recreational activity.

Members of the moderately active group also had a sedentary occupation. However, this group reported exercise equivalent to a brisk, 20-minute walk each day.

Such a walk would burn 90 to 110 calories — not much in terms of weight loss. Adding that short walk, however, decreased the risk of premature death in these patients by 16 to 30 percent.

People of normal weight showed the biggest benefit from adding a daily walk. Even people who were very obese benefited greatly from just a little exercise.

Based on the most recent data available for deaths in Europe, Dr. Ekelund and team found that twice as many deaths were due to inactivity rather than obesity.

Study author Dr. Nick J. Wareham, director of the MRC Unit, said that "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."

This study was published online Jan. 14 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The EPIC study was funded by grants from European governments and other funders, such as the Health Research Fund of the Spanish Ministry of Health Medical Research, the British Heart Foundation and the Greek Ministry of Education Council. Other funders included the Dutch Ministry of Public Health, Welfare, and Sports, the Swedish Scientific Council, the French League Against Cancer and the 3M Company.

Dr. Ekelund and colleagues disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
January 18, 2015