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Even low intensity physical activity reduces risk of early death

Published: 22 August 2019

Being physically active - regardless of the intensity - is associated with a lower risk of early death in middle aged and older people, according to new research supported by the NIHR.

The findings, published in The BMJ, also show that being sedentary - for example, sitting for 9.5 hours or more a day (excluding sleeping time) - is associated with an increased risk of death.

World Health Organization guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week for adults aged between 18 and 64 years.

However, this guidance is based mainly on self-reported activity, so it is not clear exactly how much activity (and at what intensity) is needed to protect health.

Researchers at the NIHR Leicester Biomedical Research Centre analysed observational studies that assessed links between physical activity of different intensities and mortality.

Examples of light intensity activity included walking slowly or light tasks such as cooking or washing dishes. Moderate activity includes included any activities that make you breathe harder, such as brisk walking.

The researchers pooled data from eight high quality studies, including one funded by the NIHR Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRC) East Midlands, involving 36,383 adults aged at least 40 years (average age 62).

Activity levels were categorised into quarters, from least to most active, and participants were tracked for an average of 5.8 years.

Deaths fell steeply as total volume of physical activity increased up to a plateau of about 300 minutes (5 hours) per day of light-intensity physical activity or about 24 minutes per day moderate intensity physical activity. At these levels the risk of death was halved compared to those engaging in little or no physical activity.

Dr Charlotte Edwardson, an associate professor in physical activity, sedentary behaviour and health at the University of Leicester and a co-author of the study, said: “These findings really reinforce the saying ‘Doing something is better than doing nothing’. They show that physical activity of ANY intensity lowers the risk of death, so if you’re someone who doesn’t achieve the recommended levels of moderate intensity physical activity, then doing more light activity, for example, pottering around more at work or at home and just generally being on your feet more, will still be beneficial.”

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