A new study highlights one significant benefit of leading an active lifestyle — lowering the risk of death. The findings reported on 31 August at the 2019 European Society of Cardiology Congress are part of the Nord-Trøndelag Health Study (The HUNT Study) and highlight the potential perils of a sedentary lifestyle.
Physical activity does not remain constant for most people and tends to vary greatly over the years. In fact, the modern world promotes a sedentary lifestyle both at home and in the workplace. So, the researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology sought to quantify the influence of lifestyle changes on future risk of mortality. To do this, they analysed data on almost 120,000 people from the HUNT dataset, collected using a combination of questionnaires, clinical measurements, and other samples from 1984 onwards.
The HUNT study is one of the largest health studies ever performed. All residents of Norway aged 20 and older were invited to participate in three separate phases: 1984–1986, 1995–1997, and 2006–2008. Only data from the first and third study were used in the present study.
The researchers grouped more than 20 000 men and women according to their physical activity levels: either inactive, moderate (less than two hours a week) or high (two or more hours per week). In addition, they adjusted for factors such as body mass index, age, sex, smoking, education level, and blood pressure.
Interestingly, they found that those in the inactive group had a 2-fold higher likelihood of death from any cause. And the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease was 2.7-fold higher in the sedentary group compared to the active control group.
It’s never too late
Even more notable is that those who went from inactive to highly active reduced their mortality risk to between the risk of continually active and continually sedentary people. Whereas those who went from active to inactive had the same mortality risk as continually inactive participants. This means that luckily, it may be possible to make up for a sedentary past – at least to some degree.
“Our findings imply that to get the maximum health benefits of physical activity in terms of protection against premature all-cause and cardiovascular death, you need to continue being physically active”, says study author Dr Trine Moholdt of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway who led the study. “You can also reduce your risk by taking up physical activity later in life, even if you have not been active before”
Weekly recommendation for adults is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity (1). However, Moholdt explains that “physical fitness is more important than the amount of exercise. Clinicians should individualise their advice and help people do even smaller amounts of activity that will improve fitness – this includes all types of exercise that make you breathe heavily.”
In this way, she urges everyone to “do activities you like”. This can also be as simple as walking to the shops instead of driving, getting off the metro one stop early, and using stairs instead of the lift.
The best approach to avoid a sedentary lifestyle, Molholdt says, is “to establish good exercise habits as early in life as possible. The health benefits extend beyond protection against premature death to effects in the body’s organs and on cognitive function. Physical activity helps us live longer and better lives”.
(1) Piepoli, M.F. et al. 2016 European Guidelines on cardiovascular disease prevention in clinical practice. European Heart Journal (2016). DOI: 10.1016/j.atherosclerosis.2016.05.037