Getting active, even if it’s at a low intensity, can help you live longer and decrease your risk of death! While high-intensity exercise is great for fitness, even a single walk a day can make a difference in your life expectancy. Even if you can only manage a quick 5-minute walk a few times a day, it’s worth it. Sitting for 9.5 or more hours a day has been shown to increase your risk of death, but the more active you can get the better you’ll be. That means getting off the couch and getting active – at whatever level you can – can help you live a longer, healthier life.
Learn more about the surprising findings from a new study from the British Medical Journal showing how even small amounts of low-intensity exercise can make a big impact on your health.
Walk more and live longer
This new study from the British Medical Journal, published on August 21st, 2019, combined 8 studies with more than 36,000 participants (middle-aged and seniors) in the US, UK, and Scandinavia. People wore belt-mounted motion sensors that tracked their daily movement for up to a week. This allowed researchers to determine how active the participants were on average. Participants were then followed for 6 years to check the risk of death in the various populations.
The motion sensors allowed for greater accuracy than relying on people to report their own activity. People might report that they are more active than they actually are, but also might not count lighter activities like cleaning the house or doing the dishes as exercise or activity.
What did the study find?
It’s already widely known that exercise and activity can help increase lifespan and decrease the risk of death, among other great benefits from walking. The study looked at both how much people got active and how intense the activity was. Here are some of the key results:
- The least active group had a 5x increased risk of death compared to the most active group.
- Total physical activity was associated with a lower risk of death – regardless of the intensity of the activity.
- The maximum reduction in risk of death came from about 24 minutes a day (168 min/week) of moderate to vigorous activity.
- Long periods of sitting (9.5 hours a day or more) were associated with an increased risk of death.
- The correlations were stronger and the effects of activity were larger than previously reported studies.
Getting active reduces your risk of death
This is not the first study that shows that getting active can reduce your risk of death. We reported on a previous study showing that even low levels of activity (increasing from 2,700 steps to 4,400 steps) can reduce the risk of death in seniors. The effect shown in this study was larger than you might expect, however.
In the most active group, there were 23 deaths per 1,000 participants. In the least active, that number rose to 130 per 1,000! That’s a 5-fold decrease in the risk of death just from getting maximally active.
Even light activity counts
A surprising finding was that the total amount of activity, at any intensity, was correlated with a decreased risk of death. That means that adding even light activity made a big difference in health. “Light activity” could range from as light as doing the dishes to “higher light” activity like a leisurely walk.
This is great news for seniors or people with health conditions that make brisk walking or intense activity difficult. You can still get in low-intensity, low-impact activity and see some great health benefits. Just getting active is a win, so get as active as you can.
Common health guidelines are pretty accurate
Most health agencies like the CDH, UK’s NHS and others recommend about 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (or 75 of vigorous-intensity activity) weekly. That’s about 22 minutes per day or 30 minutes, 5 days a week. The study found that to obtain the maximum reduction in your risk of death, you should get 24 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous activity (168 minutes per week).
Of course, even if exercising more than that doesn’t necessarily reduce your risk of death, it’s great for your health! Think of this number as a good starting point. If can’t get that active yet, 24 minutes per day is a great target to start to work towards.
Sitting is bad for your health
Since activity is good for your health, it stands to reason that sitting for long periods is bad for your health. We’ve covered how standing up and getting active for just 2-5 minutes every hour can help to undo the health risks of prolonged sitting.
The BMJ study found that sitting for more than 9.5 hours a day was correlated with an increased risk of death. That’s actually quite possible for people with an office job, or people who are retired and not very active. Though less than 9.5 hours of sitting wasn’t correlated with an increased risk of death, it’s probably not great for you to sit for 8 or 9 hours if you can help it! Whether you’re at home or at work, try to stand up and walk as much as possible.
Why tracking your activity is so important
Using actual hardware to track activity showed new findings (the usefulness of light activity) and stronger results than self-reporting alone. It’s possible to apply that same logic to personal fitness and activity.
You’ll see better results if you track all of your steps (or at least as many as possible) and be fully honest with yourself about how you are doing in relation to your goals. You may notice patterns – you may be inactive over the weekend or you rarely move at all during workdays, for instance. Rather than try to guess how active you are, track your steps and find out for sure!
It’s important to note that the BMJ study’s findings may not apply to everyone. Participants had an average age of around 62, so younger people who were not very active would likely not have quite as high of a risk of death. Still, even younger people can face health risks by being inactive and sitting for long periods of time. It’s also important to start active habits earlier. Getting active and staying active can help you avoid health problems and injuries which can stick with you as you age.
Everyone can benefit from knowing these main findings of the study:
- Get as active as you can, no matter what your fitness level
- Light exercise works great too – just get active
- Don’t sit for long periods of time
- Try to get at least 20-30 minutes of activity every day
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