One in ten early deaths could be prevented if everyone maintained at least half the recommended level of physical activity, say a team led by researchers from the University of Cambridge.
In a study published on February 27 in British Journal of Sports Medicineresearchers say 11 minutes a day (75 minutes a week) of moderate-intensity physical activity – such as brisk walking – would be enough to reduce the risk of diseases such as heart disease, stroke and a number of cancers.
Cardiovascular diseases – such as heart disease and stroke – are the leading cause of death worldwide, responsible for 17.9 million deaths annually in 2019, while cancer was responsible for 9.6 million deaths in 2017. The physical activity – especially when it is of moderate intensity – is known to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer and the NHS recommends that adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week.
“If you’re someone who finds the idea of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week a little daunting, then our findings should be good news. Doing some physical activity is better than none.” — Soren Brage
To investigate the amount of physical activity needed to have a beneficial effect on several chronic diseases and premature death, researchers from the Epidemiology Unit at the Medical Research Council (MRC) at the University of Cambridge carried out a systematic review and meta-analysis, pooling and analyzing cohort data from all published evidence. This approach allowed them to combine studies that did not provide enough evidence on their own and sometimes disagreed with each other to provide more robust conclusions.
In total, they looked at results reported in 196 peer-reviewed articles covering more than 30 million participants from 94 large study groups to produce the largest analysis to date of the relationship between physical activity levels and the risk of heart disease, cancer and early death .
The researchers found that outside of work-related physical activity, two out of three people reported activity levels of less than 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity, and less than one in ten managed to exceed 300 minutes per week.
Generally speaking, they found that beyond 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity, the additional benefits in terms of reduced risk of disease or early death were negligible. But even half that amount comes with significant benefits: accumulating 75 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity leads to a 23% lower risk of early death.
Dr Søren Brage, from the MRC’s epidemiology department, said: “If you’re someone who finds the idea of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week a bit daunting, then our findings should be good news. Doing some physical activity is better than none. This is also a good starting point – if you find that 75 minutes a week is achievable, you can try to gradually increase it to the full recommended amount.’
Seventy-five minutes a week of moderate activity is also enough to reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease by 17% and cancer by 7%. For some specific types of cancer, the reduction in risk is greater – head and neck cancer, myeloid leukaemia, myeloma and cardiac gastric cancer have between 14-26% lower risk. For other cancers, such as lung, liver, endometrial, colon and breast cancer, a 3-11% lower risk was observed.
Professor James Woodcock, from the MRC’s Epidemiology Unit, said: “We know that physical activity, such as walking or cycling, is good for you, especially if you think it raises your heart rate. But what we’ve found is that there are significant benefits to heart health and reducing cancer risk, even if you can only take 10 minutes each day.
The researchers calculated that if everyone in the studies had done the equivalent of at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity, about one in six (16%) early deaths would have been prevented. One in nine (11%) cases of cardiovascular disease and one in 20 (5%) cases of cancer would be prevented.
However, even if everyone managed at least 75 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity, about one in ten (10%) early deaths would be prevented. One in twenty (5%) cases of cardiovascular disease and almost one in thirty (3%) cases of cancer would be prevented.
Dr Leandro Garcia, from Queen’s University Belfast, said: ‘Moderate activity does not have to include what we normally think of as exercise, such as sports or running. Sometimes changing some habits is all it takes. For example, try walking or cycling to work or school instead of using a car, or engage in active play with your children or grandchildren. Doing activities that you enjoy and that you can easily fit into your weekly routine is a great way to get more active.
The research was funded by the Medical Research Council and the European Research Council.
What is considered moderate intensity physical activity?
Moderate-intensity physical activity raises your heart rate and makes you breathe faster, but you’ll still be able to talk during the activity. Examples include:
- Fast walking
- I am playing tennis
Reference: “Non-occupational physical activity and risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and mortality outcomes: a dose-response meta-analysis of large prospective studies” by Leandro Garcia, Matthew Pearce, Ali Abbas, Alexander Mock, Tessa Strain, Sarah Ali, Alessio Crippa, Paddy S. Dempsey, Rajna Golubic, Paul Kelly, Yvonne Laird, Eoin McNamara, Samuel Moore, Thiago Herrick de Sa, Andrea D Smith, Katrien Weindale, James Woodcock and Soren Braghe, 27 February 2023, British Journal of Sports Medicine.