The study mainly focused on participants who had done the minimum recommended amount of 150 minutes of exercise per week, or 22 minutes per day. Compared with inactive participants, adults who had done 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic physical activity per week had a 31% lower risk of dying from any cause, a 29% lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and a 15% lower risk of dying from cancer.
The same amount of exercise was linked with a 27% lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease and 12% lower risk when it came to cancer.
“This is a compelling systematic review of existing research,” said CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, who wasn’t involved in the research. “We already knew that there was a strong correlation between increased physical activity and reduced risk for cardiovascular disease, cancer and premature death. This research confirms it, and furthermore states that a smaller amount than the 150 minutes of recommended exercise a week can help.”
Even people who got just half the minimum recommended amount of physical activity benefited. Accumulating 75 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week — about 11 minutes of activity per day — was associated with a 23% lower risk of early death. Getting active for 75 minutes on a weekly basis was also enough to reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease by 17% and cancer by 7%.
Beyond 150 minutes per week, any additional benefits were smaller.
The authors’ findings affirm the World Health Organization’s position that doing some physical activity is better than doing none, even if you don’t get the recommended amounts of exercise.
“One in 10 premature deaths could have been prevented if everyone achieved even half the recommended level of physical activity,” the authors wrote in the study. Additionally, “10.9% and 5.2% of all incident cases of CVD (cardiovascular disease) and cancer would have been prevented.”
Important note: If you experience pain while exercising, stop immediately. Check with your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.
A little exercise every day
The authors didn’t have details on the specific types of physical activity the participants did. But some experts do have thoughts on how physical activity could reduce risk for chronic diseases and premature death.
“There are many potential mechanisms including the improvement and maintenance of body composition, insulin resistance and physical function because of a wide variety of favorable influences of aerobic activity,” said Haruki Momma, an associate professor of medicine and science in sports and exercise at Tohoku University in Japan. Momma wasn’t involved in the research.
Benefits could also include improvement to immune function, lung and heart health, inflammation levels, hypertension, cholesterol, and amount of body fat, said Eleanor Watts, a postdoctoral fellow in the division of cancer epidemiology and genetics at the National Cancer Institute. Watts wasn’t involved in the research.
“These translate into lower risk of getting chronic diseases,” said Peter Katzmarzyk, associate executive director for population and public health sciences at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Katzmarzyk wasn’t involved in the research.
The fact that participants who did only half the minimum recommended amount of exercise still experienced benefits doesn’t mean people shouldn’t aim for more exercise, but rather that “perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good,” Wen said. “Some is better than none.”
To get up to 150 minutes of physical activity per week, find activities you enjoy, Wen said. “You are far more likely to engage in something you love doing than something you have to make yourself do.”
And when it comes to how you fit in your exercise, you can think outside the box.
“For example, try to walk or cycle to your work or study place instead of using a car, or engage in active play with your kids or grand kids. Doing activities that you enjoy and that are easy to include in your weekly routine is an excellent way to become more active.”