Physical Inactivity May Cause as Many Deaths as Smoking, New Study Calculates

Physical Inactivity may cause as many deaths as smoking, new study calculatesNew research published July 18 in the medical journal The Lancet found that lack of physical activity by adults worldwide may cause 6% to 10% of all cases of coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, and colon cancer.

The researchers estimated that physical inactivity was responsible for about 5.3 million of the 57 million deaths in the world in 2008 — indicating that physical inactivity may cause as many chronic diseases and premature deaths as tobacco smoking or obesity.

The study, by Dr I-Min Lee ScD of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, and colleagues, was published in the July 18, 2012 online issue of The Lancet, a British medical journal. The study was part of a series of articles on physical activity, timed in publication to coincide with the Summer Olympics being hosted in England.

Physical Inactivity was defined by the researchers as a failure to spend 150 minutes a week doing moderate physical activity (such as brisk walking for 30 minutes, 5 days a week), as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC).

The Study; Method

Based on data from the WHO as well as a review of previous scientific studies, the Harvard researchers estimated the global impact of physical inactivity on coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and breast and colon cancer by calculating “population attributable fractions (PAF)” for each country or region studied.

This is a scientific method which allowed the researchers to estimate how much of these diseases could theoretically be prevented in the country or region in question if all inactive people were to become sufficiently active to meet the minimum activity standard recommended by the WHO and CDC, as stated above.

Findings – Results of Analysis

Based on their analysis, the researchers estimated that worldwide, physical inactivity causes 6% of all cases of coronary heart disease, ranging from 3.2% in southeast Asia to 7.8% of cases in the eastern Mediterranean region.

They further estimated that, worldwide, inactivity is responsible for 7% of all cases of type 2 diabetes (ranging by region from 3.9% to 9.6% of all cases), 10% of all cases of breast cancer (ranging by region from 5.6% to 14.1%), and 10% of all cases of colon cancer (ranging by region from 5.7% to 13·8% of cases).

The authors note that while “removal of physical inactivity had the largest effect on colon cancer, and the smallest on coronary heart disease in terms of percentage reduction,” nevertheless, “with respect to the number of cases that can potentially be averted, coronary heart disease would have a far larger effect than would colon cancer because of its higher incidence.”

For example, the authors point out that of the 7.25 million deaths from coronary heart disease in 2008, physical inactivity accounted for 15,000 preventable deaths in Africa, 60,000 in the Americas, 44 000 in the eastern Mediterranean region, 121,000 in Europe, 59,000 in southeast Asia, and 100,000 in the western Pacific region.

By contrast, of the 647,000 colorectal cancer deaths in 2008, physical inactivity caused an estimated 1,000 deaths in Africa, 14,000 in the Americas, 2,000 in the eastern Mediterranean region, 24,000 in Europe, 4,000 in southeast Asia, and 24,000 in the western Pacific region.

Worldwide, the analysis suggested that inactivity causes 9% of all premature deaths in the world (ranging from 5.1% to 12.5% by region). This translates to more than 5.3 million of the 57 million deaths that occurred worldwide in 2008 being caused by physical inactivity.

If inactivity were decreased by just 10%, the researchers estimated that more than 533,000 deaths could be avoided each year. If inactivity were reduced by 25%, they estimated that more than 1.3 million deaths could be avoided every year.

Moreover, the authors calculated that if physical inactivity were eliminated, the life expectancy of the world’s population would increase by 0.68 years (ranging from 0.41 years to 0·95 years, by region). This is similar to the effect of eradicating smoking or obesity.

Conclusions; Implications

While other experts have questioned the authors’ calculations that suggest inactivity may cause more deaths than smoking, there is consensus that physical inactivity is a major cause of chronic disease and premature death throughout the world, and should be treated as such by public officials.

The authors conclude, “Physical inactivity has a major health effect worldwide. Decrease in or removal of this unhealthy behaviour could improve health substantially.”

“This summer, we will admire the breathtaking feats of athletes competing in the 2012 Olympic Games,” Dr. Lee, the study’s principal author, observed. “Although only the smallest fraction of the population will attain these heights, the overwhelming majority of us are able to be physically active at very modest levels – e.g. 15–30 min a day of brisk walking – which bring substantial health benefits,” he concluded.

According to the CDC, adults need at least:

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More Information

See related HelpingYouCare™ reports on:

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Sitting 4 Hours a Day In Front of a TV or Computer May Double Your Risk of Heart Attack

TV Viewing Linked to Higher Risk of Type 2 Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease & Death

Strength Training & Walking Improve Brain & Memory, New Studies Find

Study Discovers Hormone Produced by Exercise that Helps Burn Fat and Prevent Diabetes

What is the Greatest Health Risk? (Video)

For more information on exercise, diet and other healthy lifestyle factors that promote wellness and prevent diseases, see the HelpingYouCare™ resource pages on Wellness/ Healthy Living for Seniors & Caregivers, including:


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