Spending too many hours sitting at work, commuting or relaxing on the couch can wreak as much hazard on your health as being overweight or even smoking, according to a new study published in the journal The Lancet.
Researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston found that sedentary lifestyles are responsible for millions of premature deaths globally, on par with so-called non-communicable diseases like obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. In fact, more people may die from inactivity than from tobacco use -- a somewhat surprising discovery.
For the study, the scientists used a statistical model to analyze how lifestyle-related diseases and early deaths could be prevented if people moved more. Because much of the world population is increasingly becoming sedentary due to greater availability of private and public transportation as well as changes in the work place, inactivity is rapidly becoming a major public health concern.
Worldwide, it is estimated that inactivity is the cause for 6 percent of coronary heart disease cases, 7 percent of Type 2 diabetes, 10 percent of breast cancer and 10 percent of colon cancer. As a contributor to premature mortality, it has lead to well over 5 million deaths, or about 9 percent of all deaths, in 2008, the year the data were collected. By comparison, smoking was estimated to have killed about 5 million people worldwide in the year 2000, a number that has gradually come down since.
If people became more active, it could increase the average life expectancy of the world population by 0.68 years, according to the report. In the United States those numbers would even be higher: 1.3 to 3.7 years from the age of 50, just by getting enough daily exercise.
Physical inactivity, as defined in the study, is an activity level below the recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which call for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes of a more vigorous regimen each week.
I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the study report, who calls her estimates "likely to be very conservative," said that the issue of inactivity should be considered as "pandemic with far-reaching health, economic, environmental and social consequences." She said one of the key messages of her report is to make this problem a global health priority.
While some progress has been made to reduce tobacco use and alcohol consumption and to promote healthier eating habits, the lack of regular physical activity has not yet been widely recognized as a standalone health threat, despite of being the fourth leading cause of death in the world.
The good news is that more awareness of the importance of exercising can have an accumulative effect on other health and lifestyle issues as well. As people understand better how the different aspects of well-being are connected, they can see the benefits on multiple levels. Exercise and healthy eating make us feel better, give us more energy, help us control our weight, protect us from illness, and may let us live longer and stay fit at old age. None of this is rocket science. It makes you wonder how we could have gotten so far off course in the first place.
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