Evidence suggests that moderate activity significantly reduces the risk of death

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Whilst I am an advocate of activity and exercise, I generally encourage ‘doable’ forms and levels of exercise that are relatively easily sustainable. For me, the often-quoted ‘get 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days of the week’ passes this test, especially when one considers that brisk walking can push the heart rate up to a level that qualifies as ‘moderate activity’. So, I was interested last week to see the publication of the link between this level of exercise and risk of death.

The study, which appeared in the Archives of Internal Medicine, assessed the relationship between exercise habits and overall risk of death in a group of more than 250,000 individuals aged 50-71 [1]. Each person in this study was followed for an average of 5 years.

Over the course of the study, exercising for 30 minutes on most days of the week was associated with a 27 per cent reduced risk of dying. The researchers also assessed the apparent effects of 20 minutes of vigorous activity (enough to cause individuals to break into a sweat) at least three times a week. Here, the associated reduction of risk of dying was 32 per cent.

The researchers also assessed the potential benefit to be had from lower levels of activity. Those engaged in levels of exercise less than the standard recommendations were found to be at a 19 per cent reduced risk of dying compared to sedentary individuals.

While ‘observational’ or ‘epidemiological’ studies cannot prove that exercise reduces the risk of dying, it seems reasonable to assume that it is having a genuinely beneficial effect. And if that’s the case, then the fact that individuals who do not meet the current guidelines appear still to benefit significantly is a very positive message indeed. The findings of this study prompted its lead author, Dr Michael Leitzman to comment: Engaging in any level of activity is better than not engaging in that activity� and that That’s kind of an encouraging piece of information for people who feel they might not be able to meet the guidelines.�

It’s nice to see a health professional promote exercise in a way which is more likely to inspire individuals than put them off. And it’s especially timely at this time of year when individuals may be considering New Year resolutions that may be lifestyle-related.

Many of us will be familiar with the experience of starting a New Year exercise regime which starts with some enthusiasm but peters out in a month or two. The problem here is that we can tend to set out sights too high: over-ambitious exercise plans can be difficult to sustain.

My advice for those who are really quite sedentary but have an ambition of being more active is to set their sights lower. Rather than joining a gym and going on a some strenuous programme, why not just make walking part of your daily life? In addition to being great exercise, it provides the opportunity to get outside and get some fresh air and, importantly for those of us in our winter, some natural sunlight (sunlight exposure has potential benefits, of course, for both mental and physical well-being). And all this for free. Remember to satisfy yourself in the knowledge that even quite moderate activity is likely to be doing you the power of good.


1. Leitzmann MF, et al. Physical Activity Recommendations and Decreased Risk of Mortality. Arch Intern Med. 2007;167(22):2453-2460

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