Exercise was shown to be critical to preventing premature deaths.

Researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh came to the conclusion that physical activity prevents at least 3.9 million deaths around the world each year.


Instead of looking at the downside of not exercising, scientists re-framed the issue and came up with some exciting findings. Researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh came to the conclusion physical activity prevents at least 3.9 million deaths around the world each year.

Edinburgh’s Dr. Paul Kelly thought too much emphasis was being focused on the negative consequences of inactivity so he and his team looked to celebrate the benefits of activity. The report published in the journal The Lancet Global Health details how more than 140,200 early deaths are prevented annually in the U.S. because of exercise.

"Research into lifestyle factors such as lack of physical activity, poor diet, drinking alcohol, and smoking, tends to focus on the harms these do to health," Dr. Kelly said. "This helps create a narrative to try and prevent and reduce these behaviors.

"We also believe there is value in trying to understand the benefits that 'healthy behaviors' confer in order to argue for maintaining and increasing them. Can we look instead at population activity levels and estimate the health benefits of all this activity to society?"

Dr. Tessa Strain from Cambridge worked with Dr. Kelly and analyzed data from 168 countries and used a number known as the Prevention Fraction for the Population in the calculations. They used the World Health Organization’s global recommendation of at least 150 minutes each week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise or some equivalent combination of both.

The percentage of the population of the countries meeting that standard varied greatly across the globe from 33 percent on the low side in Kuwait to 94 percent in Mozambique.

Researchers combined the data with the previously established estimates of the relative risk of dying early for active versus inactive people and were able to calculate the global total of 3.9 million lives saved each year. The risk of premature death was found to be 14 percent lower for women and 16 percent lower for men when factoring in those who met the activity level requirements.

When compared across the board the levels of premature deaths averted were slightly higher in the lower and middle income countries. Deaths prevented in low income countries were estimated at 18 percent while the number for high-income countries was 14 percent.

It is estimated 3.2 million people die annually from lack of physical activity and global health officials hope by changing the debate to a positive tone it might increase the percentage of those reaching the recommended levels of activity.

"We're used to looking at the downsides of not getting enough activity—whether that's sports or a gym or just a brisk walk at lunchtime—but by focusing on the number of lives saved, we can tell a good news story of what is already being achieved," said Dr. Strain. "It tells us how much good is being done and helps us say 'look how much benefit physical activity is already providing—let's make things even better by increasing physical activity levels further".

"Although there's a risk of complacency—people asking why we need to invest more when it's already providing benefit—we hope our findings will encourage governments and local authorities to protect and maintain services in challenging economic climates."

Click here to read more in The Lancet Global Health.

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