This just in: Exercise is good for you

Robert H. Shmerling, MD
Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Follow me on Twitter @RobShmerling

The evidence continues to mount — physical activity can help you live longer. Of course, that raises some fundamental questions:

  • Are certain activities better than others?
  • How much does the intensity of the activity matter?
  • How much is enough?

There are exercise guidelines, of course. One of the most widely quoted physical activity recommendations comes from the US government’s Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion that recommends everyone exercise at a moderate or greater intensity for at least 150 minutes a week (or 30 to 45 minutes most days of the week). While this may sound reasonable enough, most people don’t follow it. The reasons are many and diverse, but a common one is that physical activity is not part of the daily routine. For example, increasingly we do not rely on walking or biking to get to work.

Two studies, one message

Two recent studies looked at the impact of different types of physical activity and came to similar conclusions. The first study compared rates of heart disease, cancer, and premature death over a five year period among more than 260,000 people who walked to work, cycled to work, or were sedentary during their commute. Compared to those who were sedentary:

  • Those who biked had almost half the rate of heart disease, cancer, or premature death.
  • Those who walked had lower rates of heart disease (by 27%) and lower rates of death due to heart disease (by 36%).

The other study was one performed as a follow-up to previous research that linked running for as little as five minutes a day (on average) with a longer lifespan. Further analysis found that runners (as compared with non-runners)

  • experienced a 40% lower risk of premature death
  • lived an additional three years
  • were estimated to gain seven hours of added life for every hour they spent running.

In this study, the benefits of running were noted even for those who had cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure or smoking. Taken together, the researchers concluded that running might be unique in its health benefits among different types of exercise that have been studied. And while more running provided more health benefits, there did appear to be a limit: additional benefits were not seen with more than four hours of running per week, and three years of added life seemed to be the maximum gained. Cycling, walking, and other physical activity were also beneficial, though not as much as running.

Some caveats

These studies noted an association between certain physical activities (biking or running) and health benefits (lower risk of cancer, heart disease, or death). While it’s possible the physical activity directly caused these benefits, it’s also possible that there’s a different explanation. Perhaps cyclists and runners tend to eat healthier diets, smoke less, or inherit genes linked to longevity. While these studies attempted to account for these other factors, it’s impossible to completely eliminate other potential contributors. In addition, the study subjects may not be representative of the population at large. For example, the study of runners included subjects who were mostly white and middle-class; the results might have been different if others had enrolled.

Your mother was right

Getting up and getting some exercise is good for you. This is, of course, not a new idea. But these new studies are only the latest — and among the most compelling — to suggest that something as simple as walking, biking, or running could be a powerful way to improve your health and have a longer life.

Related Information: Starting to Exercise

Comments:

  1. Othman

    Hello,
    My name is Othman, a retired Professional 400m athlete, you stated that those who bike have 50% less chance of developing some disease, and those who walk has less chance than that… and that completely normal; because biking burn more calories than walking without hurting your tissues or heart
    To reach the best possible outcome, one has to practice something that help you burn the maximum calorie excess without getting.
    as a professional athlete I can say that, swimming for one hour 3 times a week is the best or 1h jog, 3 times a week, or 10km biking twice a week… walking or jogging for 20 minutes or some weight lifting, can help of course but it’s nothing compared to what I stated above…
    Also notice that one, have to eat healthy sleep well, and take some supplementation in case of any deficiency, as an example, is a very powerful and natural supplement, that can boost your energy and whole body health.
    Also eating too much calories especially during the night can make your liver suffer and transform that excess to a liver fat…
    Thank you for this article.
    Othman

  2. Arthur J Siegel M.D.

    Beyondaddressing “how much” exercise is beneficial,
    HHB readers should also consider ” how much is too much!”.
    As quintessential examples of pursuing optimal heart health, long distance runners especially are advised to consider:
    ‘Can pre-race aspirin prevent sudden cardiac death during marathons?’
    Arthur J Siegel M.D., Timothy J Noakes, M. D.
    an editorial in the current British Journal of Sports Medicine, which is free online worldwide.

  3. PETER ATKINSON

    In 1974, While I was studying for my Thai medical exams I came across a book in Sirirat Hospital library that contained dozens of studies from animals to clerks and postmen to longshoremen with different physical work loads. Together these studies showed indisputably that exercise prevents degenerative diseases and prolongs life. 43 years later you produce the same results. We also know what foods are good for us and what are bad. Why is preventive health not a mandated subject in all schools. This could cut billions off the amount spent in lost work and hospital treatment. Isn’t this as important as, say, history?

    • Dennis

      I agree to the suggestion that preventive health should be included in school subjects beginning from High school. Very important.