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Light physical activity reverses the damage of sedentary behavior in children

Light physical activity has the potential to reverse the risks associated with increased cholesterol levels caused by sedentary childhood lifestyles, according to a study led by Dr. Andrew Agbaje from the University of Exeter

The research reveals new insights into the long-term health impacts of sedentary behavior on children.

Startling findings

The experts analyzed data from the University of Bristol’s “Children of the 90s” project, tracking 792 children from age 11 to 24. The results showed that accumulated sedentary time from childhood can increase cholesterol levels by 67 percent by mid-twenties. 

This alarming statistic underscores the association of high cholesterol and dyslipidaemia from a young age with severe health issues, including premature death and heart problems like subclinical atherosclerosis and cardiac damage.

Light physical activity

Contrary to popular belief and existing guidelines, the researchers found that light physical activity is significantly more effective than moderate-to-vigorous physical activity in combating these risks. 

Activities such as long walks, house chores, slow dancing, swimming, or cycling are up to five times more effective in promoting heart health and reducing inflammation in young people.

Focus of the study 

The research was focused on accelerometer measures of sedentary time, light physical activity, and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity at ages 11, 15, and 24. 

The experts repeatedly measured high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, triglycerides, and total cholesterol at ages 15, 17, and 24. 

Additional metrics – including total body fat mass, muscle mass, fasting blood glucose, insulin, and high sensitivity C-reactive protein levels – were also considered.

Critical insights 

Over the 13-year period, sedentary time increased, while light physical activity decreased significantly. Notably, the increase in total cholesterol was observed regardless of body fat changes. 

An average of four-and-a-half hours of light physical activity daily from childhood through young adulthood causally reduced total cholesterol levels. 

By contrast, the impact of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on cholesterol was significantly less and was further diminished by increases in body fat.

Broader Implications 

“These findings emphasize the incredible health importance of light physical activity and shows it could be the key to preventing elevated cholesterol and dyslipidaemia from early life,” said Dr. Agbaje.

“We have evidence that light physical activity is considerably more effective than moderate-to-vigorous physical activity in this regard, and therefore it’s perhaps time the World Health Organization updated their guidelines on childhood exercise – and public health experts, pediatricians, and health policymakers encouraged more participation in light physical activity from childhood.”

Paradigm shift 

The findings are linked with another recent study by Dr. Agbaje, which demonstrated the ability of light physical activity to reverse obesity linked to increased sedentary time in children. This body of research advocates for a paradigm shift in public health guidelines and practices. 

Dr. Agbaje stressed the importance of replacing the current focus on moderate-to-vigorous physical activity with an emphasis on less strenuous exercise.

“Our research suggests light physical activity may be an unsung hero and it is about time the world replaced the mantra of ‘an average of 60 minutes a day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity’ with ‘at least 3 hours a day of light physical activity.’ Light physical activity appears to be the antidote to the catastrophic effect of sedentary time in the young population.”

The study is published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism

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