Exercise Extends Life in People of All Weights

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Here at Diabetes Self-Management, we often reinforce the importance of exercise in maintaining diabetes control and general good health. Now a new study published in the journal PLoS Medicine indicates that as little as 75 minutes of physical activity a week can increase lifespan by up to two years, even in people who are obese.

To determine how many years of life are gained at different levels of physical activity in people with varying body-mass index (BMI) measurements, researchers pooled data from six prospective cohort studies (studies that follow a group of similar people over time to see how certain factors affect outcomes), which included a total of 654,827 participants ages 21 to 90 years.

Analyzing the participants’ self-reported data on their leisure time activities, the researchers found that, compared to no physical activity, a level of physical activity equivalent to brisk walking for up to 75 minutes a week — just 11 minutes a day — was associated with a gain of 1.8 years in life expectancy. Being active, which was defined as having a physical activity level at or above the 150 minutes of brisk walking per week recommended by the World Health Organization, was associated with a gain in life expectancy of 3.4 to 4.5 years.

These gains in life expectancy were seen at all levels of BMI, from normal to obese. Having a normal BMI and being active was associated with a gain of 7.2 years of life compared to having a BMI of 35 or more (classified as class II+ obese) and being inactive. Having a normal BMI but being inactive was associated with 3.1 fewer years of life compared to having a BMI of 30 to 34.9 (class I obese) and being active.

According to the study authors, “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.”

Limitations of the study include its reliance on self-reported data, the tendency of overweight and obese participants to over-report their leisure-time activity, and the focus on only moderate- to vigorous-intensity activities.

To learn more about the research, read the article “Fit, Yet Fat? A Little Exercise May Add Years to Life” or see the study in PLoS Medicine. And for more information about working physical activity into your routine, check out the article “Making Exercise More Fun,” by exercise physiologist and certified diabetes educator Richard Weil.

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