Walking at a brisk pace for just 11 minutes a day cuts the risk of premature death by almost a quarter, according to a new study.
The team led by researchers from the University of Cambridge showed how one in ten early deaths could be avoided if everyone managed to reach the threshold of 75 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity.
The study showed that this would be enough to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke – the leading causes of death worldwide – as well as a number of cancers.
To explore the amount of physical activity needed to have a beneficial impact on several chronic diseases and premature death, researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge carried out a systematic review and a meta-analysis, pooling and analyzing cohort data from all published evidence. This approach allowed them to pull together studies that on their own did not provide enough evidence and sometimes disagreed with each other to provide stronger conclusions.
In total, they examined results reported in 196 peer-reviewed articles, covering more than 30 million participants from 94 large study cohorts, to produce the largest analysis to date of the association between levels of physical activity and the risk of heart disease, cancer and early death.
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Researchers found that outside of work-related physical activity, two in three people reported activity levels below 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity, the amount recommended by the NHS, the UK National Health Service.
Overall, they found that beyond 150 min per week of moderate-intensity activity, the additional benefits in terms of reduced risk of disease or early death were marginal. But even half that amount came with significant benefits: accumulating 75 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity resulted in a 23% reduction in the risk of premature death.
“If you’re someone who finds the idea of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week a little daunting, then our results should be welcome news,” said lead author Dr Soren Brage. study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
If you find 75 minutes a week to be manageable, you can try increasing it gradually to the full 150 minutes recommended, he suggested.
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In concrete terms, 75 minutes a week was enough to reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease by 17% and cancer by 7%. For some specific cancers, the risk reduction was greater – head and neck cancers, myeloid leukemia, myeloma and gastric cardia had a 14-26% lower risk. For other cancers, such as lung, liver, endometrial, colon and breast cancer, a 3-11% lower risk has been observed.
“We know that physical activity, like walking or cycling, is good for you, especially if you feel it gets your heart rate up. But what we have found is that there are substantial benefits for heart health and reducing your risk of cancer even if you can only manage 10 minutes a day,” said Professor James Woodcock of MRC epidemiology unit.
The researchers calculated that if everyone in the studies performed a full 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity, around one in six (16%) early deaths would be prevented. One in nine cases (11%) of cardiovascular disease and one in 20 cases (5%) of cancer would be avoided.
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However, even if everyone managed at least 75 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity, around one in ten (10%) early deaths would be prevented. One in twenty cases (5%) of cardiovascular disease and almost one in thirty cases (3%) of cancer would be avoided.
“Moderate activity doesn’t have to involve what we normally think of as exercise, like sports or running,” said Dr Leandro Garcia of Queen’s University Belfast. “Doing activities (like dancing) that you enjoy and that are easy to include in your weekly routine is a great way to become more active.”
Sometimes it is enough to replace certain habits. For example, park your car in the farthest parking spot from your place of work or while shopping, then walk quickly to the door or up the stairs instead of using the elevator.
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The research was funded by the Medical Research Council and the European Research Council.
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