Overweight? Keep active and live longer

Overweight people have a shorter life expectancy but can enjoy a much longer life by keeping active. And it doesn’t have to be that hard.

Two overweight women walk in city street while bus passes
Even just getting off the bus one stop earlier will help to compensate for the dangers of being overweight. Photo: Shutterstock

“This is great news for a lot of people who weigh more than they should or want to. Only a short amount of physical activity will substantially reduce the risk of getting ill and dying at a young age,” confirms Jakob Tarp. He is a researcher at the Department of Sports Medicine at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences (NIH).

Jakob Tarp portrait
Jakob Tarp is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Sports Medicine at NIH. Photo: NIH

Outweighing weight

Obesity and increased bodily weight involve much more than “looking good”. The real problem is that people who are overweight run a much higher risk than others of suffering from serious illnesses such as diabetes type 2, cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer – leading, in short, to a much shorter life expectancy.

“By keeping physically active, you can practically outweigh all these disadvantages and almost eliminate the increased risk of illness.”

  • BMI = Body mass index
  • BMI indicates the ratio between body weight and height, providing an indication of whether a person’s weight is within the normal range:
    < 18.5 is defined as underweight
    18.5 – 24.9 indicates a normal body weight.
    25 – 29.9 is defined as overweight
    > 30 is defined as obesity – more…
  • A particularly high BMI is associated with health risks: There is an increased risk of suffering from so-called lifestyle diseases such as diabetes type 2, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer and colon cancer.
  • In addition to the problems and the costs for society, persons with such diseases will often have a shorter life expectancy.
  • BMI is used internationally to measure and compare the health risk implied by being overweight or underweight, and to monitor developments in a population.

Try: BMI calculator

Avoid the lower 5th

A study has been conducted comparing statistics from 300,000 persons from the UK, who were divided into groups based on level of physical activity and body mass index (BMI). The study then assessed the groups with different combinations of the above factors with a view to the risk of dying at an early age – compared with the group made up of persons “with normal weight and level of activity”.

“The study concluded that it was important to avoid being in the ‘20 percent’ group with the lowest level of activity. If you are able, literally, to walk your way out of that group, you can substantially improve your chances of a longer life, almost irrespective of your BMI,” says Jakob Tarp. (Other studies have also shown that the risk of illness also decreases significantly.)

It is only when you have a very high BMI – above 35 – that physical activity cannot outweigh the increased risk.

Short walks

And we are not talking about heavy workouts.

“All that is required, for example, is to go for short walks or cycle to and from work. The important factor is to increase your pulse and breathing at least slightly, and most of us can do that.

  • A study conducted last year showed that a very low level of physical activity is, in itself, beneficial.
  • The new study demonstrated that activity outweighs the increased risk of death due to being overweight or obese. This is very important: Figures from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health show that as many as every fifth Norwegian has a BMI of more than 30, which is the borderline for obesity.
  • The same data show that less than 50% of all Norwegians have “normal weight” (BMI of 18.5-25) and are therefore in the category with the lowest health risk.

Immediate effect

Former studies have confirmed how physical activity can both reduce the levels of dangerous cholesterol and fat in the blood, improve blood sugar regulation and lower blood pressure. Obesity has a negative impact on all these factors and represents a higher risk of diabetes type 2, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer and colon cancer.

Obese woman stretching - sunset
It is well known that exercise is a key to better health, but that so little is needed to virtually eliminate the dangers of being overweight is new. Photo: Shutterstock


Persons who suffer from any of the above will have a much more difficult life but will also represent major personal and economic costs for both their families and society in general. In addition, they have a much shorter life expectancy.

Overweight woman is cycling on a bike path in the sun
One must not do "exercise" to minimize the disadvantages of being overweight. But you have to make some effort, and everyone can manange to do that, says Jakob Tarp. Photo: Shutterstock

“The good news is that physical activity has an immediate effect. As soon as you get started, and every time you go for a walk, all these levels will improve,” says Jakob Tarp. This is well documented.

Everything helps

It is difficult to accurately estimate how much activity is required to ensure a longer life for each individual, and by how much you can extend your life expectancy with a certain level of activity, but:

Around 150 minutes of “moderate to intense” activity every week has proved beneficial. This corresponds with the long-standing recommendations from the health authorities.

“However, it is important to keep active on a regular basis. It is all about developing good habits and to keep active. But keeping active doesn’t have to imply ‘working out’. All kinds of physical activity are good, and if you’re not able to achieve 150 minutes per week, then it is OK to start with less.”

Moving away from obesity

Jakob Tarp explains that this also implies reconsidering the unilateral focus on “treating obesity” with weight loss.

“A lot of people struggle to lose weight. Our study shows that body weight is most probably less important if the person is able to start regular physical activity,” says Jakob Tarp.

The study also showed, however, that persons with normal weight and who were also physically active had the lowest risk of dying at an early age.