Sedentary Lifestyle Twice as Deadly as Obesity

Sedentary individuals could add years to their lives by simply adding a brisk 20-minute walk to their daily repertoire, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

UK researchers found that lack of exercise actually posed twice the risk of early death that obesity does—and doesn’t necessarily depend on being obese or even overweight.

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“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,” lead study author Ulf Ekelund, MSc, PhD, said in a press release.

Analyzing data from 334,161 European men and women, Ekelund and his colleagues investigated the association between physical inactivity and premature death and how it might relate to obesity.

They looked at height, weight, and waist circumstance measurements as well as self-assessed levels of physical activity, which had been taken between 1992 and 2000 when subjects had participated in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition Study. The study included a follow-up of more than 12 years, during which 21,438 of the participants died.

The researchers judged the participants’ level of physical activity by combining activity at work with recreational activity. They categorized 22.7% of the participants as inactive because they reported no leisure activity in addition to having sedentary jobs.

Based on their findings, doing exercise that burned just 90 to 110 calories a day—the equivalent of a brisk 20-minute walk—could move an individual from the inactive to the moderately inactive group and reduce the risk of early death by 16% to 30%.

The authors concluded that “…efforts to encourage even small increases in activity in inactive individuals may be beneficial to public health.”

They saw the most significant reductions in risk of early death when comparing inactive and moderately active participants. While this effect was greatest among participants with a normal body mass index, it also showed benefits in overweight and obese participants.

“Although we found that just 20 minutes would make a difference, we should really be looking to do more than this,” said Ekelund, who is a visiting investigator scientist in the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge in the UK.  “Physical activity has many proven health benefits and should be an important part of our daily life.”


Ekelund U, Ward HA, Norat T, Luan T, May AM, Weiderpass E, 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. 14 January 2015. [Epub ahead of print].