Lack of Exercise Is a Bigger Risk Factor Than Obesity in Premature Death

Story at-a-glance -

  • New data suggests at least twice as many deaths occur due to a lack of exercise than due to obesity
  • A brisk 20-minute walk each day may reduce your risk of premature death by up to 30 percent

By Dr. Mercola

Would you take a brisk 20-minute walk each day if you knew it could reduce your risk of premature death by up to 30 percent? Well… lace up your walking shoes, because that’s what scientists from the University of Cambridge revealed.1

Everyone in the study benefited from the modest increase in physical activity, regardless of whether they were normal weight, overweight, or obese. In fact, the researchers believe that increasing exercise is even more important than reducing obesity in terms of public health.

Their data suggests that at least twice as many deaths occur due to a lack of exercise than due to obesity. This is really astounding, considering one in five US deaths are associated with obesity. Study author Ulf Ekelund from the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge told TIME:2

“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.”

If You Want to Live Longer... Exercise!

If you are currently living a sedentary lifestyle, the mere act of incorporating some moderate activity most days of the week can significantly reduce your mortality rate.

Past research showed that just meeting the minimum requirement of 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a day, five days a week, can reduce your risk of death from any cause by 19 percent.3

Those who engaged in moderate intensity activity even more -- a full seven days a week -- further reduced their risk of death, from 19 to 24 percent. A separate study also found that, compared to those who exercised daily and often vigorously, sedentary people had a six times greater risk of dying from heart disease over the course of 15 years.4

The greatest gains are often seen among people who go from being sedentary to physically activity, although benefits also increase with exercise frequency and intensity (to a point, of course, as overdoing it will backfire).

As Samantha Heller, an exercise physiologist at New York University Medical Center, told CBS News:5

If you look at the human body, you will notice the odd, irregular shapes of the bones and muscles. Just the musculoskeletal architecture of the human body shows that it is designed to move. The adaptations the body makes to regular exercise are nothing short of ‘astounding,” she said.

Aerobic exercise ignites the body's immune system, improves mental function, boosts energy, strengthens muscles and bones, and reduces the risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, she said.

‘If we do not move, we will not be able to move,’ Heller said. ‘Gee, I am so sorry I exercised today' is something no one has ever said.”

Exercise Improves the Quality of Your Life, Not Just the Quantity

Part of what makes exercise so useful is that it not only extends your life but also adds quality of life to those extra years. All of those movements that you might now take for granted – walking up and down stairs, carrying in groceries, climbing a ladder to change a light bulb – can start to become more difficult by the time you’re in your 70s. This is when sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss) tends to accelerate. You might start to feel weaker and find you can’t do things, physically, that you used to do. But exercise can change that by helping you to maintain your muscle mass and strength (and even increase your muscle size). At the same time, exercise lowers your risk of chronic diseases so much that researchers described it as "the best preventive drug" for many common ailments, from psychiatric disorders to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.6

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Your Entire Body Benefits from Exercise

Numerous beneficial biochemical changes occur during exercise, including alterations in more than 20 different metabolites involved in fat burning and metabolism, among other things, like optimizing insulin/leptin receptor sensitivity. As stated by Dr. Timothy Church, director of preventive medicine research at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, exercise indeed affects your entire body—from head to toe—in beneficial ways.7 This includes changes in your:

  • Muscles, which use glucose and ATP for contraction and movement. Tiny tears in your muscles make them grow bigger and stronger as they heal. Gaining more muscle through resistance exercises has many benefits, from losing excess fat to maintaining healthy bone mass and preventing age-related muscle loss as you age.The intensity of your resistance training can achieve a number of beneficial changes on the molecular, enzymatic, hormonal, and chemical level in your body.
  • Lungs. As your muscles call for more oxygen, your breathing rate increases. The higher your VO2 max—your maximum capacity of oxygen use—the fitter you are.
  • Heart. Your heart rate increases with physical activity to supply more oxygenated blood to your muscles. The fitter you are, the more efficiently your heart can do this, allowing you to work out longer and harder. Your blood pressure will also decrease as a result of new blood vessels forming.
  • Brain. The increased blood flow also benefits your brain, allowing it to almost immediately function better. Exercising regularly also promotes the growth of new brain cells, boosting your capacity for memory and learning. A number of neurotransmitters are also triggered, such as endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, and GABA. Some of these are well-known for their role in mood control. Exercise, in fact, is one of the most effective prevention and treatment strategies for depression.
  • Joints and Bones. Exercise can place as much as five or six times more than your body weight on them. Weight-bearing exercise is one of the most effective remedies against osteoporosis, as your bones are very porous and soft, and as you get older your bones can easily become less dense and hence, more brittle -- especially if you are inactive.

Are You Sedentary? Try This to Get More Movement

More than half of American men, and 60 percent of American women, never engage in any vigorous physical activity lasting more than 10 minutes per week.8 I believe high-intensity exercises are an important part of a healthy lifestyle, however perhaps equally important is simply moving more while sitting less.

I recommend using a pedometer, or better yet, one of the newer fitness trackers like the Jawbone UP, to keep track of your daily movement. At first, you may be surprised to realize just how little you move each day. Sitting really is the new smoking, as sitting more than 8 hours a day will actually increase your risk of lung cancer by over 50%, far worse than exposure to second-hand smoke.

Setting a goal of say 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day (which is just over three to five miles, or 6-9 kilometers) can go a long way toward getting more movement into your life. If you fit in your 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day, you’ll enjoy a significant health boost. One study found that walking for two miles a day or more can cut your chances of hospitalization from a severe episode of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) by about half.9

Another study found that daily walking reduced the risk of stroke in men over the age of 60. Walking for at least an hour or two could cut a man’s stroke risk by as much as one-third, and it didn’t matter how brisk the pace was. Taking a three-hour long walk each day slashed the risk by two-thirds.10 As you become accustomed to this regular movement, you can then add in high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which will allow you to reap all the rewards that exercise has to offer. Personally I seek to walk between 13,000 and 16,000 steps, or 7 to 9 miles a day. I use this uninterrupted quiet time to read about one new book a week.

Optimize Your Exercise Benefits with High-Intensity Movements

Walking 7,000-10,000 steps is, ideally, in addition to, not in place of, your normal exercise program. This might sound like a lot, but when you incorporate HIIT into your workouts, you get the benefits in a fraction of the time. HIIT such as Peak Fitness mimics the movements of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, which included short bursts of high-intensity activities, but not long-distance running. This, researchers say, is what your body is hard-wired for. Basically, by exercising in short bursts, followed by periods of recovery, you recreate exactly what your body needs for optimum health. Twice-weekly sessions, which require no more than 20 minutes from start to finish, can help you:

  • Lower your body fat
  • Improve your muscle tone
  • Boost your energy and libido
  • Improve athletic speed and performance
  • Naturally increase your body's production of human growth hormone (HGH)—a synergistic, foundational biochemical underpinning that promotes health and longevity

Can you find 20 minutes twice a week to lower your risk of chronic disease, feel better, and live longer? I thought so. You can find the details on how to perform Peak Fitness HIIT here. Or, if you prefer, learn how to perform one of my favorite exercises: high-intensity super-slow weight training (which requires just 12 to 15 minutes once a week).