01 Jul 2017

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What Stops People From Being Active

Some people hesitate to become active or increase their level of physical activity because they fear getting injured or having a heart attack. Studies of generally healthy people clearly show that moderate-intensity physical activity, such as brisk walking, has a low risk of such adverse events.

The risk of musculoskeletal injury increases with the total amount of physical activity. For example, a person who regularly runs 40 miles a week has a higher risk of injury than a person who runs 10 miles each week. However, people who are physically active may have fewer injuries from other causes, such as motor vehicle collisions or work-related injuries. Depending on the type and amount of activity that physically active people do, their overall injury rate may be lower than the overall injury rate for inactive people.

Participation in contact or collision sports, such as soccer or football, has a higher risk of injury than participation in non-contact physical activity, such as swimming or walking. However, when performing the same activity, people who are less fit are more likely to be injured than people who are fitter.

Cardiac events, such as a heart attack or sudden death during physical activity, are rare. However, the risk of such cardiac events does increase when a person suddenly becomes much more active than usual. The greatest risk occurs when an adult who is usually inactive engages in vigorous-intensity activity (such as shoveling snow). People who are regularly physically active have the lowest risk of cardiac events both while being active and overall.

Premature Death

What strong scientific evidence does show is that physical activity reduces the risk of premature death (dying earlier than the average age of death for a specific population group) from the leading causes of death, such as heart disease and some cancers, as well as from other causes of death. This effect is remarkable in two ways:

  • First, only a few lifestyle choices have as large an effect on mortality as physical activity. It has been estimated that people who are physically active for approximately 7 hours a week have a 40 percent lower risk of dying early than those who are active for less than 30 minutes a week.
  • Second, it is not necessary to do high amounts of activity or vigorous-intensity activity to reduce the risk of premature death. Studies show substantially lower risk when people do 150 minutes of at least moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity a week.

Research clearly demonstrates the importance of  even low amounts of physical activity reducing the risk of dying prematurely. The most dramatic difference in risk is seen between those who are inactive (30 minutes a week) and those with low levels of activity (90 minutes or 1 hour and 30 minutes a week). The relative risk of dying prematurely continues to be lower with higher levels of reported moderate- or vigorous-intensity leisure-time physical activity.

All adults can gain this health benefit of physical activity. Age, race, and ethnicity do not matter. Men and women younger than 65 years as well as older adults have lower rates of early death when they are physically active than when they are inactive. Physically active people of all body weights (normal weight, overweight, obese) also have lower rates of early death than do inactive people.

The Risk of Dying Prematurely Declines as People Become Physically Active

The Risk of Dying Prematurely Declines as People Become Physically Active. Text-only data points follow this graphic.
Minutes per Week of Moderate- or Vigorous-Intensity Physical Activity

The Risk of Dying Prematurely Declines as People Become Physically Active—Data Points

Minutes per Week of Moderate- or Vigorous-Intensity Physical Activity

Relative Risk

30 1
90 0.8
180 0.73
330 0.64
420 0.615

The bottom line is that the health benefits of physical activity far outweigh the risks of adverse events for almost everyone.

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