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Physical activity prevents millions of premature deaths every year

Physical activity prevents nearly four million deaths every year, according to new research led by the University of Cambridge. The researchers believe there is too much focus on the negative health consequences of physical inactivity, when more emphasis should be placed on the benefits of being physically active.

Dr. Paul Kelly is an expert in the Physical Activity for Health Research Center at the University of Edinburgh. 

“Research into lifestyle factors such as lack of physical activity, poor diet, drinking alcohol, and smoking, tends to focus on the harms these do to health,” said Dr. Kelly. “This helps create a narrative to try and prevent and reduce these behaviors.”

“We also believe there is value in trying to understand the benefits that ‘healthy behaviors’ confer in order to argue for maintaining and increasing them. Can we look instead at population activity levels and estimate the health benefits of all this activity to society?”

Led by Dr. Tessa Strain from the MRC Epidemiology Unit at Cambridge, the research team used a number known as the Prevented Fraction for the Population to estimate the number of deaths that are prevented through physical activity.

The experts analyzed published data from 168 countries to determine what percentage of each population meets the World Health Organization weekly guideline of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, or 75 minutes of high-intensity activity.

The results were highly variable among the different countries, ranging from 33 percent in Kuwait to 94 percent in Mozambique. By combining this data with estimates of the relative risk of premature death due to physical inactivity, the experts were able to calculate the proportion of premature deaths prevented by exercise. 

Worldwide, physical activity was found to lower the annual number of premature deaths by 15 percent, which is the equivalent of 3.9 million lives.

Despite variation in physical activity levels across different countries, the positive contribution of physical activity was surprisingly consistent across the globe.

The effects were the most profound in low income countries, where 18 percent of premature deaths were averted compared to 14 percent in high income countries.

In the United States alone, 140,200 early deaths are prevented each year.

“We’re used to looking at the downsides of not getting enough activity – whether that’s sports or a gym or just a brisk walk at lunchtime – but by focusing on the number of lives saved, we can tell a good news story of what is already being achieved,” said Dr Strain.

“It tells us how much good is being done and helps us say ‘look how much benefit physical activity is already providing – let’s make things even better by increasing physical activity levels further.'”

“Although there’s a risk of complacency – people asking why we need to invest more when it’s already providing benefit – we hope our findings will encourage governments and local authorities to protect and maintain services in challenging economic climates.”

The study is published in the journal Lancet Global Health.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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