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Higher weekly activity levels linked to lower risk of five chronic diseases

Activity levels need to be five times higher than WHO recommendations, study suggests

Ingrid Torjesen

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Higher levels of physical activity are strongly associated with lower risk of five common chronic diseases - breast and bowel cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke - finds a study* published in The BMJ today.

Although there is no definitive level of physical activity required to reduce the risk of common conditions, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a minimum total physical activity level of 600 metabolic equivalent (MET) minutes a week across different ‘domains’ of daily life. This 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.

To gain a greater understanding of the quantity and type of activity needed to maintain good health, 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 3000-4000 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, the researchers said. “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 said.

In a linked editorial,** researchers at the University of Strathclyde and the International Prevention Research Institute in Lyon, France said the study “represents an advance in the handling of disparate data on a lifestyle factor that has considerable importance for the prevention of chronic diseases.”

But they pointed out that “it cannot tell us whether risk reductions would be different with short duration intense physical activity or longer duration light physical activity.”


* Kyu HH, et al. Physical activity and risk of breast cancer, colon cancer, diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and ischemic stroke events: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013. BMJ 2016;354:i3857. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.i3857

** Autier P, Pizot C. Meaningless METS: studying the link between physical activity and health. BMJ 2016;354:i4200. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.i4200

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