Henry Xu

Walking at a brisk pace for just 11 minutes a day slashes the risk of a premature death by almost a quarter, according to new research.

The team led by researchers at the University of Cambridge showed how one in ten early deaths could be prevented if everyone managed to reach the threshold of 75 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity.

The study demonstrated that this would be sufficient to lower the risk of heart disease and stroke–the leading causes of death globally—as well as a number of cancers.

To explore the amount of physical activity necessary to have a beneficial impact on several chronic diseases and premature death, researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge carried out a systematic review and meta-analysis, pooling and analyzing cohort data from all of the published evidence. This approach allowed them to bring together studies that on their own did not provide sufficient evidence and sometimes disagreed with each other to provide more robust conclusions.

In total, they looked at results reported in 196 peer-reviewed articles, covering more than 30 million participants from 94 large study cohorts, to produce the largest analysis to date of the association between physical activity levels and risk of heart disease, cancer, and early death.

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The researchers found that, outside of work-related physical activity, two out of three people reported activity levels below 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity, the amount recommended by NHS, Britain’s national health service.

Broadly speaking, they found that beyond 150 min per week of moderate-intensity activity, the additional benefits in terms of reduced risk of disease or early death were marginal. But even half this amount came with significant benefits: accumulating 75 min per week of moderate-intensity activity brought with it a 23% lower risk of early death.

“If you are someone who finds the idea of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week a bit daunting, then our findings should be good news,” said Dr. Soren Brage, lead author of the study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

If you find that 75 minutes a week is manageable, then you could try stepping it up gradually to the recommended full 150 minutes, he suggested.

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Specifically, 75 minutes per week was enough to reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease by 17% and cancer by 7%. For some specific cancers, the reduction in risk was greater – head and neck, myeloid leukaemia, myeloma, and gastric cardia cancers were between 14-26% lower risk. For other cancers, such as lung, liver, endometrial, colon, and breast cancer, a 3-11% lower risk was observed.

“We know that physical activity, such as walking or cycling, is good for you, especially if you feel it raises your heart rate. But what we’ve found is there are substantial benefits to heart health and reducing your risk of cancer even if you can only manage 10 minutes every day,” stated Professor James Woodcock from the MRC Epidemiology Unit.

The researchers calculated that if everyone in the studies had completed a full 150 min per week of moderate-intensity activity, around one in six (16%) early deaths would be prevented. One in nine (11%) cases of cardiovascular disease and one in 20 (5%) cases of cancer would be prevented.

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However, even if everyone managed at least 75 min per week of moderate-intensity physical activity, around one in ten (10%) early deaths would be prevented. One in twenty (5%) cases of cardiovascular disease and nearly one in thirty (3%) cases of cancer would be prevented.

“Moderate activity doesn’t have to involve what we normally think of exercise, such as sports or running,” said Dr. Leandro Garcia from Queen’s University Belfast. “Doing activities (like dancing) that you enjoy and that are easy to include in your weekly routine is an excellent way to become more active.”

Sometimes, replacing some habits is all that is needed. For example, park your car in the furthest parking spot at your workplace or on shopping trip, then briskly walk to the door—or climb the stairs instead of using the elevator.

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The research was funded by the Medical Research Council and the European Research Council.

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