Physical Activity Strongly Linked To Lower Risk Of Heart Disease, Cancer, Stroke And Diabetes

It doesn't have to mean hitting the gym.

Last week, scientists revealed that sedentary lifestyles were as deadly for us as smoking - a habit that costs the NHS millions in early deaths and diseases.

While the news may be disheartening, especially to many of us who work in offices and spend most of our day sitting down, a new report by The BMJ has revealed the myriad benefits any sort of physical activity can have on your health.

Higher levels of ‘total’ physical activity are strongly associated with lower risk of five common chronic diseases - breast and bowel cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

This doesn’t have to mean hitting the gym; it can include being more physically active at work, engaging more in domestic activities such as housework and gardening, and/or engaging in active transportation such as walking and cycling.

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Many studies have shown the health benefits of physical activity. This has led the World Health Organization (WHO) to recommend a minimum total physical activity level of 600 metabolic equivalent (MET) minutes a week across different ‘domains’ of daily life.

A person can achieve 3,000 MET minutes a week by incorporating different types of physical activity into their daily routine - for example, climbing stairs for 10 minutes, vacuuming for 15 minutes, gardening for 20 minutes, running for 20 minutes, and walking or cycling for 25 minutes.


1) Use a standing desk or conduct meetings standing up.

2) Take frequent breaks that mean you’re walking around the office floor than hoarding everything at your desk so you don’t have to get up.

3) Walk over to your colleagues to talk to them rather than instant messaging

4) Take walks on your lunch break.

5) Take the stairs instead of the lift.

However, BMJ reports that we still don’t definitively know how much the type and quantity of physical activity reduces the risk of common conditions.

So a team of researchers based in the US and Australia analysed the results of 174 studies published between 1980 and 2016 examining the associations between total physical activity and at least one of five chronic diseases - breast cancer, bowel (colon) cancer, diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and ischemic stroke.

They found that a higher level of total weekly physical activity was associated with a lower risk of all five conditions.

Most health gains occurred at a total activity level of 3,000-4,000 MET minutes a week, with diminishing returns at higher activity levels.

The results suggest that total physical activity needs to be several times higher than the current recommended minimum level of 600 MET minutes a week to potentially achieve larger reductions in risks of these diseases, say the authors.

Although they cannot tell us about cause and effect, meta-analyses involving observational research are useful for pulling evidence together. And the authors say their findings have several important implications.

“With population ageing, and an increasing number of cardiovascular and diabetes deaths since 1990, greater attention and investments in interventions to promote physical activity in the general public is required,” they write.

“More studies using the detailed quantification of total physical activity will help to find a more precise estimate for different levels of physical activity,” they conclude.

To read the full study, click here.