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A study from Europe finds that twice as many deaths may be attributed to inactivity as to obesity, and that getting at least 20 minutes of exercise per day is especially important to people who are of normal (not over-) weight.

Everyone needs to exercise at least a little every day, concludes a study involving 334,000 men and women published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

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Heading up the massive study for the  European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition are Dr Ulf Ekelund (University of Cambridge, UK), Dr. Heather A Ward (Imperial College London, UK), and a long list of collaborators. "This is a simple message: just a small amount of physical activity each day could have substantial health benefits for people who are physically inactive," Dr Ekelund told the press.

Physical inactivity has long been associated with increased risk of early death, Dr. Ekelund explains. Although physical inactivity contributes to obesity, measured in terms of BMI (body mass index), it is a risk factor independent of BMI, especially in people of normal weight.

Physical inactivity accounts for twice as many premature deaths as obesity, the researchers concluded, and exercising as little as 20 minutes a day makes a difference.

The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) Study followed 334, 161 men and women from across Europe from 1992 until 2012. The researchers measured height, weight, and waist circumference every year from 1992 until 2000, and then tracked the participants for another 12 years. Volunteers for the study reported their levels of physical activity to the researchers. During those 12 years, 21,438 participants died.

A Big Difference Between "Inactive" And "Moderately Inactive"

The research team found the greatest difference in death rates between two groups, Europeans who were "inactive" and Europeans who were "moderately inactive." "Inactive" participants in the study reported getting no exercise on the job and getting no exercise in their leisure activities. "Moderately inactive" participants in the study reported getting no exercise at work, but including about 20 minutes of physical activity per day in their daily routines away from the job.

In every weight group, thin or fat, getting at least a little exercise every day made a critical difference in survivability. "Moderately inactive" people reduced their risk of death by 16 to 30 prtvrny. The amount of exercise needed to make a difference is roughly enough to burn 90 to 110 calories (kcal) a day. For an obese person, that might be as little as walking half a kilometer (1/3 of a mile) a day. For a normal-weight person, that might be walking 2 kilometers (1-1/4 miles) or so. Other light exercise also confers benefits. Of course, other forms of exercise also count, and a routine including other aerobic activities, physical agility activities, resistance exercise, and sport is ideal.

However, if you aren't getting any exercise at all, walking is a good place to start.

Implications For Medical Practice

The authors of the study state that encouraging exercise, even more than weight loss, should be a top priority of doctors. Says Professor Nick Wareham, one of the contributors to the paper, “Helping people to lose weight can be a real challenge, and whilst we should continue to aim at reducing population levels of obesity, public health interventions that encourage people to make small but achievable changes in physical activity can have significant health benefits and may be easier to achieve and maintain.” 

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