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Exercise lengthens your life - even if you're overweight
November 6th, 2012
05:02 PM ET

Exercise lengthens your life - even if you're overweight

Add this to the list of reasons why exercise is good for you: A new study says 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity, leisure time exercise is associated with roughly 3.4 years added to a person's life.

Researchers from the National Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School, and other organizations analyzed six different prospective cohort studies of more than 632,000 people ages 40 and older. The studies had a median follow-up period of 10 years, with roughly 82,000 reported deaths. Regular, moderate intensity exercise was associated with an increased life expectancy, even when the person exercising had an unhealthy Body Mass Index (BMI).

Dr. I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the senior author of the study, says that not exercising but having a healthy weight was associated with 3.1 fewer years of life, compared to obese people who were active. Conversely, people who exercised 150 minutes a week and had a healthy BMI gained an extra 7.2 years of life.

While it's best to be at a healthy weight for your body, Lee thinks her team's analysis demonstrates that every bit of activity helps, regardless of a person's size.

"This shows if you emphasize physical activity, you still get the benefit," says Lee. "Overweight, obese, severely obese - if you are active, the results suggest that you ... have more of a benefit than someone who is not heavy but not active."

Exercise may preserve brain better than games

Lee and her team based their calculations on the World Health Organization's recommendation that adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week. They defined leisure time activity as any physical activity that wasn't a part of the participants' jobs, commute, or routine housework, such as organized sports, walking, bowling, gardening and hiking.

The analysis has its limitations, most notably that the studies it's based on used self-reported data to determine how much the participants exercised in their spare time and how much they weighed. Also, the studies did not take into account any activity that was done during the participants' jobs or housework.

Still, Lee says the data is a good reminder that it doesn't take a lot of time for people to be active and do something to help them live longer.

4 keys to healthy aging


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soundoff (56 Responses)
  1. DanielG

    For crying out loud. How often does it need to be said that correlation does not mean causation? The headline reads that Exercise Lengthens your Life. But the study does not show this! The relationship between exercise and living longer could be due to many other factors.

    November 6, 2012 at 17:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Lauren

      So, are you suggesting eating doughnuts and sitting around like the 2/3 of overweight obese Americans instead?

      November 7, 2012 at 08:54 | Report abuse |
    • PaulR

      I don't think Daniel is making the leap in logic you're suggesting there, Lauren. He's simply pointing out rational analysis of scientific findings, unlike the sensationalist media and knee-jerk types with an agenda.

      November 7, 2012 at 12:04 | Report abuse |
    • Allie

      I agree Daniel. There are many possible confounding variables at play here. For example, you need to keep in mind socioeconomic status and job because if they have a low SES, they might not be in a neighborhood where it is safe to exercise and because they have low SES, they probably will not be able to afford a gym membership. Also, if you are at a job that gets paid on salary and you have control over the things you do while at your job, you will likely have a lower allostatic load. As shown in the Whitehall study, those who had a lower status job were likely to have higher allostatic load and were therefore more likely to get heart disease later on in life. The confounding variable here being stress. I could go on and on...but this study needs to look at SES and how this affects the relationship between exercising and living longer.

      November 7, 2012 at 13:28 | Report abuse |
    • jeff

      Daniel, this story does not talk about confounding factors – but the original study may. Maybe you have done this, but you really need to read the research paper to find out. Not everyone is capable of doing that.

      November 9, 2012 at 13:15 | Report abuse |
  2. Jorge

    Yup, physically active lifestyles lead to metabolic changes that extend your life, no matter your weight or diet. Just check out the French and Hispanic paradoxes; both groups are notable for rich, heavy diets and alcohol consumption, but they tend to exceed the expectations for their groups as far as health and longevity, because they are culturally more in tune with spending their free time outside and keeping in motion, something that is not an outstanding quality of the contemporary American mainstream.

    November 7, 2012 at 09:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Ann Fuller

    In spite of the differing opinions, I feel that just about anyone could manage 1 1/2 hours of moderate intensity exercise in a week. Once you start, you will feel better – exercise releases endorphines, endorphines make you happy! Happy people...well, you know the rest.

    November 7, 2012 at 20:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rob

      Exercise is important, but whats more inportant is what your eating. High fat and/or high carbs places a strain on the body. We should be eating mostly vegetables and fruits. Limiting meats and grains. Following a mostly vegetarian diet will help you shed the pounds. Like eat meat once a week. Watch the carbs , I like rice and I had to put the stuff down it will make you gain weight

      January 16, 2013 at 20:01 | Report abuse |
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  5. lvessie

    I think everyone should read this article. Working out or doing some form of physical activity is SO important. As you said, it is not just to say skinny and have a good body image. It keeps your heart and other organs healthy as well. I do not think some people understand how important it is to get out and move around, even if it is for a short period of time. Anything you do to keep yourself healthy, no matter how small, is important!

    November 17, 2012 at 22:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Sam Wilson

    Very important aspect has been discussed in this blog post. Indeed very useful. Diet needs to compliment the exercise regime for each and every day. Food supplements also play a major role, especially many trainers advice to opt for L Arginine Infusion for improving a healthy muscle tone.

    November 30, 2012 at 02:04 | Report abuse | Reply
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  7. Dr. Chris

    Researchers who correlate exercise with BMI are wasting their time, and when they publish their findings, they are wasting everyone else's.

    December 1, 2012 at 16:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Simply G

    It is clear that exercise plays a valuable part in all our lives. In our organization Visalus we offer a simple 90 day Challenge that has literally changed the lives of thousands. We encourage exercise along with a good diet. There is nothing better then the combination of these two. On my website: SimplyG.com there are numerous testimonials that show how exercise and the 90 day Challenge we promote have changed and saved lives all over North America. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the blue print for success. With society the way that is is and people adapting a more seditary lifestyle it is no suprise that we face these issues. We need to incorporate some form of exercise to make up for the lack of it we face today.

    December 3, 2012 at 14:04 | Report abuse | Reply
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    December 4, 2012 at 08:48 | Report abuse | Reply
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    December 6, 2012 at 01:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. fitbycarrie

    Exercise also increases quality of life in a vast array of areas. But that doesn't mean everyone needs to do it at the gym. Simply moving around more is beneficial. Small steps, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or parking far from the store, can help meet the recommendations to move for 30 minutes a day most days of the week.

    December 6, 2012 at 13:40 | Report abuse | Reply
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    I guess exercising is pretty important in yor life, obese or non-obese people.

    December 16, 2012 at 18:50 | Report abuse | Reply
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    Wwwaaaaaooooooo This shows if you emphasize physical activity, you still get the benefit," says Lee. "Overweight, obese, severely obese – if you are active, the results suggest that you ... have more of a benefit than someone who is not heavy but not active,,,,, Thanks

    February 16, 2013 at 00:02 | Report abuse | Reply
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    Remember that fitness and diet are a team. You have to combine them cohesively. So burn excess calories in your workout and make the right food nutrient choices to give your body the best results you want.

    February 18, 2013 at 07:42 | Report abuse | Reply
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