“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).
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.