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Physical Inactivity May Be as Deadly as Smoking

Failure to Get Recommended Amounts of Activity Is Tied to Heart Disease, Diabetes, and Cancer
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

July 17, 2012 -- Not moving enough may be as hazardous to your health as smoking, a new study shows.

The study, which is published in The Lancet, estimates as many as 5.3 million deaths around the world were caused by physical inactivity in 2008.

By comparison, researchers point out that cigarette smoking is estimated to cause about 5 million deaths worldwide each year.

"Physical inactivity has a large impact on the health of the world. In fact, its impact is comparable to that of cigarette smoking," says researcher I-Min Lee, ScD, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, in a news conference.

Experts who were not involved in the research questioned that claim, however.

Timothy Armstrong, PhD, coordinator of the surveillance and population-based prevention program for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, points out that his organization estimates that inactivity causes fewer deaths -- about 3.2 million deaths around the world each year.

Armstrong says he thinks the Lancet researchers compared numbers that were arrived at in two different ways. "If the same methodology had been applied to smoking, I suspect we would not see the similar estimates for mortality," Armstrong says in an email to WebMD.

"That is not to say that physical activity or physical inactivity is not a major risk factor" for chronic diseases, he says. "It is. WHO currently ranks it fourth after high blood pressure, tobacco use, and high cholesterol."

The study further estimates that 6% of heart disease, 7% of type 2 diabetes, and about 10% of colon and breast cancers, are linked to lack of activity.

Sitting a Lot Can Be 'Very Bad' for You

Experts who study the health effects of physical inactivity praised the study for its broad scope and careful methods.

"This is a super, super analysis," says James Levine, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "We know that as soon as somebody gets out of their chair, their blood sugar improves, their blood cholesterol and triglycerides improve, and that's very consistent. Every time you get up it gets better. Every time you sit down it gets worse."

"If you add up the fact that you sit a lot, many, many hours each day, the cumulative impact of a lot of sitting is not surprisingly therefore very bad," Levine says.

Other experts agree.

"Inactivity plays a role in almost every chronic disease there is," says John P. Thyfault, PhD, associate professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri's School of Medicine. He studies the health effects of inactivity but was not involved in the research.

"We should maintain cigarette smoking as public health enemy number one, but we should move physical inactivity right up next to it," he says.

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