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Brisk Walking 75 Minutes a Week May Lower Risk of Early Death

Adult and children walking together along a forest path.
Credit: Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash
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A new study has suggested that around 10% of early deaths could be avoided by achieving at least half of the recommended amount of moderate-intensity physical activity, such as 75 minutes of brisk walking per week. The systematic review is published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Exercise and health

Heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases are some of the leading causes of death worldwide. In 2019 they accounted for around 17.9 million deaths, while cancer in 2017 was responsible for 9.6 million deaths.

However, there are ways in which we can reduce our risk for developing cardiovascular disease and cancer – for example, by engaging in moderate-intensity physical exercise. The UK’s National Health Service recommends adults achieve at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise.

What is defined as moderate-intensity exercise?

Moderate-intensity exercise is typically defined as physical activity that raises your heart and breathing rates, but still allows you to speak comfortably, such as:

  • Brisk walking
  • Hiking
  • Dancing
  • Cycling
  • Tennis

To find out more about the possible links between physical activity and reducing the risks of chronic disease and premature death, the researchers in the current study performed a systematic review and meta-analysis. This pooled together data from 196 peer-reviewed publications involving over 30 million participants to determine if there was an association between levels of physical activity and risks of heart disease, cancer and early death.

How much exercise is enough?

The researchers found that, excluding work-related activity, around two-thirds of people reported performing less than the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity. Even fewer – around 1 in 10 – achieved over 300 minutes per week.

However, the researchers also found that performing over 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week resulted in only marginal additional benefits in terms of reducing the risk of disease or early death. Even 75 minutes per week – half the recommended amount – was linked to significant health benefits, lowering the risk of early death by 23%.

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“If you are someone who finds the idea of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week a bit daunting, then our findings should be good news. Doing some physical activity is better than doing none. This is also a good starting position – if you find that 75 minutes a week is manageable, then you could try stepping it up gradually to the full recommended amount,” said Dr. Soren Brage, co-senior author of the study and group leader of the Physical Activity Epidemiology group at the University of Cambridge.

Just 75 minutes of moderate activity per week – equal to almost 11 minutes per day – could reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer by 17% and 7%, respectively.

Focusing on individual cancers, this amount of physical activity could reduce the risk of head and neck cancers, myeloid leukemia and myeloma by between 14–26%, as well as lung, liver, endometrial, colon and breast cancers by 3–11%.

Professor James Woodcock, also co-senior author of the study, explained: “We know that physical activity, such as walking or cycling, is good for you, especially if you feel it raises your heart rate. But what we’ve found is there are substantial benefits to heart health and reducing your risk of cancer even if you can only manage 10 minutes every day.”

Reducing the risk of early death

The researchers also calculated how many early deaths may be prevented by following guidance on physical activity levels. If all participants in the investigated studies completed at least 75 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, they estimate this could have prevented 1 in 10 early deaths, in addition to 1 in 20 cases of cardiovascular disease and close to 1 in 30 cancer cases.

Increasing this to the recommended 150 minutes per week was estimated to be capable of preventing around 1 in 6 early deaths, 1 in 9 cases of cardiovascular disease and 1 in 20 cancer cases.

Dr. Leandro Garcia, co-lead author of the study, said: “Moderate activity doesn’t have to involve what we normally think of exercise, such as sports or running. Sometimes, replacing some habits is all that is needed. For example, try to walk or cycle to your work or study place instead of using a car, or engage in active play with your kids or grandkids. Doing activities that you enjoy and that are easy to include in your weekly routine is an excellent way to become more active.”

Reference: Garcia L, Pearce M, Abbas A, Mok A, Strain T et al. Non-occupational physical activity and risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mortality outcomes: a dose response meta-analysis of large prospective studies. BJSM. 2023. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2022-105669

This article is a rework of a press release issued by the University of Cambridge. Material has been edited for length and content.