At least 3.9 million early deaths are being averted worldwide every year by people being physically active, according to a new study using data from 168 countries. By showing how many deaths are averted, it might also be possible to frame the debate in a positive way and this could have benefits to advocacy, policy and population messaging.
The team behind the study argue that too often we focus on the negative health consequences of poor levels of physical activity when we could be celebrating the achievements of physical activity.
“Research into lifestyle factors such as lack of physical activity, poor diet, drinking alcohol, and smoking, tends to focus on the harms these do to health,”
said Dr Paul Kelly from the Physical Activity for Health Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh.
“This helps create a narrative to try and prevent and reduce these behaviours.
“We also believe there is value in trying to understand the benefits that ‘healthy behaviours’ confer in order to argue for maintaining and increasing them.
Can we look instead at population activity levels and estimate the health benefits of all this activity to society?”
In their study, Dr Tessa Strain from the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge and colleagues used a number known as the Prevented Fraction for the Population — in this case, the proportion of deaths that were prevented because people are physically active.
By combining data from various sources, the researchers came up with estimates of the relative risk of dying early for active people compared to inactive people, the authors were able to estimate the proportion of premature deaths that were prevented because people are physically active.
They found that globally, due to physical activity the number of premature deaths was an average (median) of 15% lower than it would have been — 14% for women and 16% for men — equating to approximately 3.9 million lives saved per year.
Despite considerable variation in physical activity levels between countries, the positive contribution of physical activity was remarkably consistent across the globe, with a broad trend towards a greater proportion of premature deaths averted for low- and middle-income countries. In low income countries, an average of 18% of premature deaths were averted compared to 14% for high income countries.
“We’re used to looking at the downsides of not getting enough activity — whether that’s sports or a gym or just a brisk walk at lunchtime — but by focusing on the number of lives saved, we can tell a good news story of what is already being achieved,”
said Dr Strain.
It tells us how much good is being done and helps us say ‘look how much benefit physical activity is already providing — let’s make things even better by increasing physical activity levels further’.
Although there’s a risk of complacency — people asking why we need to invest more when it’s already providing benefit —
we hope our findings will encourage governments and local authorities to protect and maintain services in challenging economic climates.
Six ways to keep active during lockdown
- Go out for a daily walk, wheel, or whatever movement you are able to do
- Go for a cycle ride or run if you’re able to
- Do stretching exercises or yoga for your muscles and joints
- If you have a garden, do some gardening — great for stretching and bending
- Activity in greenspace or parks and activity with others may have additional mental and social health benefits
- Join an online exercise session