An hour of physical activity a day may eliminate health risks associated with time spent sitting at a desk or in front of the TV, according to research recently published in The Lancet.
This study was part of a four-paper series on physical inactivity—a major public health issue affecting all corners of the world. In 2012, it was estimated that one-quarter of adults worldwide fail to get enough physical activity—a fact that’s especially concerning when paired with increasingly sedentary lifestyles.
As part of this series, experts analyzed data from over 1 million people from 16 studies tracking physical activity and mortality risk. Researchers divided participants into four groups depending on their level of physical activity, which ranged from less than 5 minutes a day in the least active group to 60–75 minutes of exercise in the most active group. Types of exercise included activities like brisk walking and leisure biking.
As expected, researchers found that adults who sat for prolonged periods of time and had no physical activity had the greatest risk of death among all groups. However, people who sat for 8 hours a day yet engaged in at least some physical activity had lower risk of death than those who were less sedentary but were not physically active. And perhaps most promising, the increased risk of death from prolonged sitting was eliminated for adults that engaged in at least one hour of physical activity a day.
However, authors note that few participants get the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity a week, per the World Health Organization. Only 1 in 4 study participants got at least an hour of physical activity a day—the amount of exercise needed to offset the effects of prolonged sitting.
“There has been a lot of concern about the health risks associated with today’s more sedentary lifestyles,” says lead author Professor Ulf Ekelund from the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences, Norway and the University of Cambridge, UK. “Our message is a positive one: it is possible to reduce—or even eliminate—these risks if we are active enough, even without having to take up sports or go to the gym.”
Ekelund adds, “For many people who commute to work and have office-based jobs, there is no way to escape sitting for prolonged periods of time. For these people in particular, we cannot stress enough the importance of getting exercise, whether it’s getting out for a walk at lunchtime, going for a run in the morning or cycling to work. An hour of physical activity per day is the ideal, but if this is unmanageable, then at least doing some exercise each day can help reduce the risk.”
However, we still have a long way to go in combatting physical inactivity across the globe. In the remaining papers published in The Lancet, experts found that 23% of adults and 80% of adolescents worldwide failed to meet current physical activity guidelines in 2015. Researchers estimate that physical inactivity costs the global economy the equivalent of 67.5 billion U.S. dollars each year in health care costs and lost productivity.
“The world needs to get serious about physical activity,” writes Dr. Pam Das, Senior Executive Editor and Dr. Richard Horton, Editor-in-chief of The Lancet. “There is extensive evidence about the need for action to improve physical activity, what actions are most promising, and who needs to be involved.” But as Dr. Das explains, efforts to increase physical activity need to be made a priority and receive increased funding to have a meaningful impact on global health.