Physical inactivity is a global pandemic, say researchers, and it causes about as many premature deaths as smoking does every year.
That's according to a series of papers published in The Lancet on Wednesday, a finding of which says that as recently as 2008, around 5.3 million deaths worldwide could somehow be attributed to inactivity.
There were roughly 57 million deaths overall in 2008, which means inactivity caused around one in 10 premature deaths that year, putting it on par with smoking.
HealthDay reports that the studies show 33 percent of all the adults in the world – about 1.5 billion people – to have a risk of disease that's 20 to 30 percent higher than normal because of the lack in physical activity in their lives.
Dr. Jack Der-Sarkissian, the physician lead for Adult Weight Management and assistant chief of service in the Department of Family of Medicine at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center, made sure to make the difference between physical activity and exercise clear.
"They're not necessarily saying people who are 'exercising', but people who are just remaining active," he said. "What they looked at is a person who is sedentary versus a person who moves.
The study found that people who sit at least three hours a day – and thus aren't active – are shaving two years off their life. "That's pretty significant," said Der-Sarkissian.
The theory is, explained the doctor, that if folks don't move and just eat and add on calories, inflammation within the body increases. While medical professionals aren't sure what mechanics are behind the clear advantages of being active, Der-Sarkissian says that by being physically active, people enhance their muscles and release hormones that activate metabolism and reduce inflammation.
"So people who are active – and I'm not talking exercise to the level where you're doing triathlons – tend to use their muscles and metabolism in a way that encourages more health," he said. More specifically, it seems to translate to lower morbidity – a longer life.
According to the study, inactivity exacerbates risk for breast and colon cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
"People who are sedentary tend to gain more fat, and the fat they tend to gain is abdominal fat," he said. The fat they tend to gain also gets inside the organs, which Der-Sarkissian says raises a person's risk of diseases, including the ones named in the study and arthritis. "Our body's ability to help and repair itself seems to be impeded. Physical activity seems to reverse that."
Der-Sarkissian says the pandemic is, in part, a product of moving from a production society to a service society. "One hundred years ago, we were building things, working with our hands, farming. We were outdoors," he said. "Over the last 100 years, in the U.S. at the very least, we have moved people indoors. We are more of a service-oriented culture now and the things we do are more sedentary. We don't actually have to move."
Some groups are more at risk than others, he says – he pointed to men, Latinos and black people in particular – but said this affects "everyone across the board." He also says that, without physical activity, other healthy behavior simply isn't enough.
"Activity is critical, and if you frame activity in terms of dedicated exercise time, that's the barrier a lot of patients run into," Der-Sarkissian said. So people need to "make" activity. He pointed to himself as an example: He'll use a standing desk when he can, will take the stairs instead of the elevator in the parking garage and won't sit for more than an hour at a time.
And for folks who are completely caught in an unhealthy lifestyle – that is, one that lacks physical activity, healthy food and regular doctor visits – he says the prognosis is "deadly."
"You are shaving two years off your life by sitting three hours a day," he said. "That does not have to be the norm. It's in your hands." He noted that it's easier to instill good habits in kids, too – but also that they learn by example.
Researchers from the study did strike a chord of hope, though, noting that if rates of physical inactivity were to be cut by 10 percent globally, that could save 533,000 lives. If inactivity rates are cut by 25 percent, the number of lives saved shoots up to 1.3 million.
If people should take one thing away from the Lancet reports, Der-Sarkissian said it's to be active.
"Do not park yourself in front of a computer, or at your desk, or in front of the TV," he said. "Do not make that part of your norm. Your norm should be standing, and you should be as active as possible."
Photo by El Alvi via Flickr Creative Commons.