Physical Activity Helps Prevent Early Death

Researchers at the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh have shown that at least 3.9 million early deaths are being averted throughout the world every year by people being physically active. The study shows that too often we focus on the negative health results of poor levels of being physically active when we should be celebrating the positive benefits of being active.

All research into lifestyle factors such as poor diet, smoking, drinking alcohol and physical activity tends to focus on the harms these factors play in poor health. This helps create a narrative to try and prevent and reduce these behaviors.

The team believe there is value in trying to understand that behaviors that are healthy confer in order to argue for increasing and maintaining them. They decided to look instead at population activity levels and then estimate the health benefits of physical activity to society.

In the study, the team used a number of known as the Prevented Fraction for the Population. In this case, the proportion of deaths that were prevented due to people being more physically active.

They looked at previously published data for 168 countries on the proportion of the population meeting the World Health Organizations global recommendation of at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity throughout a week, or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity, or an equivalent combination of the two. The proportion of populations meeting the recommended level of physical activity varied quite substantially between countries. Kuwait showed a low of 33%, 64% for the United Kingdom, and a high of 94% for Mozambique.

Through combining the data with estimates of the relative risk of dying early for people who were active compared to inactive people, the team were able to estimate the proportion of premature deaths that were prevented due to people being physically active.

They discovered that globally, due to physical activity the number of premature deaths was an average of 15% lower than it would have been – 16% for men and 14% for women. This equates to approximately 3.9 millions lives saved each year.

Despite the considerable variation in physical activity levels between the countries, the positive contribution of physical activity was remarkably consistent across the world. There was a broad trend towards a greater proportion of premature deaths averted for middle and low income countries. In the low income countries, an average of 18% of premature deaths were averted compared to 14% for the higher income countries.

In the United States, 140,200 premature deaths were prevented annually and in the United Kingdom 26,600.

Health experts will often times frame the debate in terms of the number of early deaths due to the lack of physical activity which estimates that 3.2 million die prematurely every year. The researchers however, say that through showing how many deaths are averted, it may also be possible to frame the debate in a positive manner which could have benefits to policy, advocacy and population messaging.

By focusing on the number of lives saved rather than looking at the downsides of not getting enough physical activity, we can tell a good news story of what is already being achieved. This tells us how much good is being accomplished and helps us become more aware of how much benefit physical activity is already providing. This leads to finding ways to be even better by increasing physical activity levels further.

While there is a risk of complacency, people wondering why we need to invest more when it’s already providing benefit, gives the team hope that their hope findings will encourage local authorities and governments to protect and maintain services even in challenging economic climates.

To view the original scientific study click below

Use of the prevented fraction for the population to determine deaths averted by existing prevalence of physical activity: a descriptive study.