Analyzing data from over 650,000 individuals, Dr. Steven Moore and colleagues report that greater amounts of leisure-time physical activity were associated with higher life expectancy across a wide range of activity levels and body mass index groups.
Leisure time physical activity reduces the risk of premature mortality, but the years of life expectancy gained at different levels remains unclear. Our objective was to determine the years of life gained after age 40 associated with various levels of physical activity, both overall and according to body mass index (BMI) groups, in a large pooled analysis.
Methods and Findings
We examined the association of leisure time physical activity with mortality during follow-up in pooled data from six prospective cohort studies in the National Cancer Institute Cohort Consortium, comprising 654,827 individuals, 21–90 y of age. Physical activity was categorized by metabolic equivalent hours per week (MET-h/wk). Life expectancies and years of life gained/lost were calculated using direct adjusted survival curves (for participants 40+ years of age), with 95% confidence intervals (CIs) derived by bootstrap. The study includes a median 10 y of follow-up and 82,465 deaths. A physical activity level of 0.1–3.74 MET-h/wk, equivalent to brisk walking for up to 75 min/wk, was associated with a gain of 1.8 (95% CI: 1.6–2.0) y in life expectancy relative to no leisure time activity (0 MET-h/wk). Higher levels of physical activity were associated with greater gains in life expectancy, with a gain of 4.5 (95% CI: 4.3–4.7) y at the highest level (22.5+ MET-h/wk, equivalent to brisk walking for 450+ min/wk). Substantial gains were also observed in each BMI group. In joint analyses, being active (7.5+ MET-h/wk) and normal weight (BMI 18.5–24.9) was associated with a gain of 7.2 (95% CI: 6.5–7.9) y of life compared to being inactive (0 MET-h/wk) and obese (BMI 35.0+). A limitation was that physical activity and BMI were ascertained by self report.
More leisure time physical activity was associated with longer life expectancy across a range of activity levels and BMI groups.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Regular physical activity is essential for human health. It helps to maintain a healthy body weight and prevents or delays heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. It also makes people feel better and increases life expectancy. The World Health Organization (WHO) currently recommends that adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity every week. Moderate-intensity physical activities (for example, brisk walking and gardening) require a moderate amount of effort and noticeably increase the heart rate; vigorous-intensity physical activities (for example, running or fast swimming) require a large amount of effort and cause rapid breathing and a substantial heart rate increase. Worryingly, people in both developed and developing countries are becoming increasingly physically inactive. People are sitting at desks all day instead of doing manual labor; they are driving to work in cars instead of walking or cycling; and they are participating in fewer leisure time physical activities.
Why Was This Study Done?
Although various studies suggest that physical activity increases life expectancy, few have quantified the years of life gained at distinct levels of physical activity. Moreover, the difference in life expectancy between active, overweight individuals and inactive, normal weight individuals has not been quantified. Thus, it is hard to develop a simple public health message to maximize the population benefits of physical activity. In this pooled prospective cohort analysis, the researchers determine the association between levels of leisure time physical activities, such as recreational walking, and years of life gained after age 40, both overall and within body mass index (BMI) groups. A pooled prospective cohort analysis analyzes the combined data from multiple studies that have followed groups of people to investigate associations between baseline characteristics and outcomes such as death. BMI is a ratio of weight to height, calculated by dividing a person's weight by their height squared; normal weight is defined as a BMI of 18.5–24.9 kg/m2, obesity (excessive body fat) is defined as a BMI of more than 30 kg/m2.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers pooled self-reported data on leisure time physical activities and BMIs from nearly 650,000 individuals over the age of 40 years enrolled in one Swedish and five US prospective cohort studies, most of which were investigating associations between lifestyle factors and disease risk. They used these and other data to calculate the gain in life expectancy associated with specific levels of physical activity. A physical activity level equivalent to brisk walking for up to 75 minutes per week was associated with a gain of 1.8 years in life expectancy relative to no leisure time activity. Being active—having a physical activity level at or above the WHO-recommended minimum of 150 minutes of brisk walking per week—was associated with an overall gain of life expectancy of 3.4–4.5 years. Gains in life expectancy were seen also for black individuals and former smokers, groups for whom relatively few data had been previously available. The physical activity and life expectancy association was also evident at all BMI levels. Being active and normal weight was associated with a gain of 7.2 years of life compared to being inactive and class II+ obese (having a BMI of more than 35.0 kg/m2). However, being inactive but normal weight was associated with 3.1 fewer years of life compared to being active but class I obese (having a BMI of 30–34.9 kg/m2).
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that participation in leisure time physical activity, even below the recommended level, is associated with a reduced risk of mortality compared to participation in no leisure time physical activity. This result may help convince currently inactive people that a modest physical activity program may have health benefits, even if it does not result in weight loss. The findings also suggest that physical activity at recommended levels or higher may increase longevity further, and that a lack of leisure time physical activity may markedly reduce life expectancy when combined with obesity. Although the accuracy and generalizability of these findings may be limited by certain aspects of the study's design (for example, some study participants may have overestimated their leisure time physical activity), these findings reinforce the public health message that both a physically active lifestyle and a normal body weight are important for increasing longevity.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001335.
The World Health Organization provides information about physical activity and health (in several languages); its 2010 Global Recommendations on Physical Activity for Health is available in several languages
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on physical activity for different age groups; its Physical Activity for Everyone webpages include guidelines, instructional videos, and personal success stories
The UK National Health Service information source NHS Choices also explains the benefits of regular physical activity and includes physical activity guidelines, tips for exercising, and some personal stories
MedlinePlus has links to other resources about exercise and physical fitness (in English and Spanish)