Physical Inactivity Is Equivalent to the Health Risks of Smoking and Obesity

by Dr Sam Girgis on July 18, 2012

Physical inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle are known risk factors for many health problems including coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer such as breast and colon cancer.  Physical inactivity has contributed to the growing epidemic of obesity in the United States and abroad.  We have witnessed a doubling of the worldwide diabetes rate over the past 30 years, and physical inactivity and obesity has contributed to this trend.  The use of televisions, computers, and video game consoles has contributed to the physical inactivity of our population.  In addition, the use of automobiles has caused us to rely on modes of transportation that do not require large amounts of energy expenditure.  We have previously discussed the health hazards of physical inactivity.  Sedentary lifestyle has been shown to increase the risk of deadly pulmonary embolism in women.  We have also discussed the increased risk for developing peripheral artery disease in those individuals with sedentary lifestyles.  Recently, we have discussed the finding that exercise decreases the risk of developing breast cancer in women.  The World Health Organization has recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise for adults, such as brisk walking or light jogging.

Researchers, lead by Dr. I-Min Lee from Harvard Medical School, have found that physical inactivity is equivalent to the health risks of smoking and obesity.  The results of their research were published online in the journal Lancet.  The researchers attempted to determine the effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases by estimating how many lives could be saved each year if inactive individuals became active.  The researchers found that physical inactivity causes about 6-10% of the major non-communicable diseases in the world.  These diseases included coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, and colon cancer.  In addition, physical inactivity causes 9% of premature mortality, which is estimated to be 5.3 million deaths in the year 2008.  It was found that by eliminating physical inactivity, life expectancy could be increased by 0.68 years on average.

The authors wrote, “These findings make inactivity similar to the established risk factors of smoking and obesity… How does physical inactivity compare with other risk factors for poor health? Although risk factors are classified on different scales (thus, the proportion at risk varies across risk factors), it is nonetheless informative to look at two established risk factors targeted for government action worldwide: smoking and obesity. Smoking was estimated to cause about 5 million deaths worldwide in 2000.  As for obesity, if all obese people in the USA were to attain normal weight, life expectancy in the population was estimated to increase by 0·7–1·1 years at birth in one analysis and 0·5–0·7 years at age 50 years in another. Thus, physical inactivity seems to have an effect similar to that of smoking or obesity”.

This study adds to the existing evidence that a healthy lifestyle and physical activity decreases mortality and improves the quality of life.  This finding should encourage us to put the TV remote down, let go of the computer mouse and game controller, and put on our sneakers and go for a brisk walk or light jog.



I-Min Lee et al. “Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancyLancet 2012; doi: 10.1016/20140-6736(12)61031-9


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