Obesity and lack of exercise are often mentioned in the same breath as likely reasons for a shortened lifespan. But according to a new study that looked at health data from 330,000 adults over an average of a dozen years, twice as many deaths may be attributable to a lack of physical activity in comparison to the number of deaths that can be attributed to obesity.

On the bright side, the data suggest that just a small increase in the amount of daily physical activity could yield significant health benefits.

Using the most recent available data on deaths in Europe the researchers estimate that 337,000 of the 9.2 million deaths among European men and women were attributable to obesity (a body mass index, or BMI, of 30 or higher). They also found that nearly twice that number of deaths (676,000) could be linked to physical inactivity.Sedentary Lifestyle

Physical inactivity has been long been associated with an increased risk of early death, as well as being associated with a greater risk of developing conditions such as heart disease and cancer. In order to measure the association between physical inactivity and premature death – along with its interaction with obesity – researchers in Europe looked at data from 334,161 men and women across the continent who participated in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) Study. The researchers looked at height, weight and waist circumference, and used self-reported assessments to measure levels of physical activity.

What they found was that the greatest decrease in the risk of premature death occurred in the comparison between groups categorized as being inactive and moderately inactive, as gauged by combining activity at work with recreational activity. About a quarter (22.7%) of participants were grouped under the inactive category, meaning they reported having no recreational activity along with having a sedentary occupation. The authors estimate that doing exercise equivalent to just a 20 minute brisk walk each day – burning between 90 and 110 kcal – would move such a person from the inactive category to the moderately inactive group. If that sounds like a modest move, the results are significant: The researchers found that such an increase in activity reduced those individuals’ risk of premature death by between 16%-30%. The affect was most pronounced among people whose BMIs were in the ‘normal’ range, but was noticeable in those with higher BMIs, as well.

As the authors wrote, “The greatest reductions in all-cause mortality risk were observed between the inactive and the moderately inactive groups across levels of general and abdominal adiposity, which suggests that efforts to encourage even small increases in activity in inactive individuals may be of public health benefit.”


  1. Ekelund, Ulf, et al. “Physical activity and all-cause mortality across levels of overall and abdominal adiposity in European men and women: the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition Study (EPIC).” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2015): ajcn-100065.



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