CAMBRIDGE, England, Wednesday August 3, 2016 – Pope Francis recently warned of the dangers of a “couch potato” lifestyle, and inactivity has been scientifically linked to 5.3 million deaths globally a year, overtaking the 5.1 million linked to smoking.
Being inactive is known to increase the risk of conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers, with the global cost for healthcare and lost productivity estimated at US$67.5 billion annually.
An hour’s brisk exercise daily can nevertheless offset the risks of early death linked to a sedentary desk-bound working life, according to the analysis of data from more than a million people published in the Lancet to coincide with the Olympics.
To examine the impact of activity and inactivity, researchers asked the authors of 13 existing papers to reanalyze their data.
Participants of the original studies were categorized depending on how active they were – from the least active who did less than five minutes exercise a day, up to 60-75 minutes a day for the most active.
The scientists then looked at how many participants died during a follow-up period of between two and 14 years.
Those who sat for eight hours a day, but were otherwise physically active, had a much lower risk of premature death compared with others who sat for fewer hours daily, but did not engage in physical exercise.
The combination of sitting for a long time and physical inactivity carried the greatest risk.
“For many people who commute to work and have office-based jobs, there is no way to escape sitting for prolonged periods of time,” said Professor Ulf Ekelund, of the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences and the University of Cambridge, who led the study.
“For these people in particular, we cannot stress enough the importance of getting exercise, whether it’s getting out for a walk at lunchtime, going for a run in the morning or cycling to work.
“An hour of physical activity per day is the ideal, but if this is unmanageable, then at least doing some exercise each day can help reduce the risk.”
A particular warning note was sounded about watching television, probably because of associated habits.
Watching TV for more than three hours was associated with an increased risk of premature death for all but the most active.
The researchers suggested that this was likely to be because of snacking, or because people were more likely to watch TV after eating their evening meal, which could affect their metabolism. It could, they said, also be a sign of an unhealthy lifestyle in general.
The scientists said that governments should ensure their policies encouraged physical activity, citing the example of a bus scheme where stops were placed further apart to encourage walking.
They also suggested that employers should make it easier for staff to be active during their working day by offering flexible lunch breaks and the provision of showering facilities.
As to the effect of the Olympics on the public’s activity levels, Dr Pedro Hallal, of Brazil’s Federal University of Pelotas, said that despite a blip around the time of the Games where people temporarily take up a sport, there is no long-term legacy.
“There’s been no health legacy of the Olympics reported ever, but it’s the perfect time to talk about human movement,” he said.