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Inactivity: A Pandemic, Deadly as Smoking

Update Date: Jul 18, 2012 12:51 PM EDT

A new study has reported that failing to do enough exercise is as deadly as smoking and kills one in 10 people each year. The study, lead by I-Min Lee and published in The Lancet, found that physical inactivity accounted for 5.3 million deaths in 2008.

Researchers are calling the problem a pandemic, with roughly three of every 10 individuals aged 15 years or older -- about 1.5 billion people -- do not reach present physical activity recommendations. 

According to researchers, if physical activity increased by 10 percent, it could reduce the number of premature deaths by 533,000 each year. If it increased by 25 percent, as much as 1.3 million premature deaths may be prevented. If physical inactivity was eliminated entirely life-expectancy worldwide may increase by 0.68 years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 150 minutes each week of moderate-intensity physical activity, 75 minutes each week of vigorous-intensity physical activity or an equivalent of both to maintain a healthy lifestyle. 

Lack of exercise is said to be responsible for six percent of those who are diagnosed with coronary heart disease, seven percent of Type 2 diabetes, 10 percent of breast cancer and 10 percent of colon cancer.

"Physical inactivity has a large impact on the health of the world," Lee said. "In fact, its impact is comparable to that of cigarette smoking."

Lee's study has been widely accepted. 

"This is a super, super analysis," James Levine, pofessor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn, said in an interview with WebMd. "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." 

Associate Professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri's School of Medicine John Thyfault agrees. 

"Inactivity plays a role in almost every chronic disease there is," Thyfault said. "We should maintain cigarette smoking as public health enemy number one, but we should move physical inactivity right up next to it."

However, there seems to be some disagreement with the new findings. 

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

 "If the same methodology had been applied to smoking, I suspect we would not see the similar estimates for mortality," Armstrong said in an interview WebMD. "That is not to say that physical activity or physical inactivity is not a major risk factor. It is. WHO currently ranks it fourth after high blood pressure, tobacco use, and high cholesterol."

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