A visit to the doctor’s office can result in a flurry of new pills to treat disease. Yet, one of the simplest things to do to protect our health is to improve our lifestyle.
As part of a healthy lifestyle, the World Health Organization recommends 150 minutes of brisk walking per week or 75 minutes of running per week. Yet, in a busy week it is difficult to set aside time.
A new study in the British Medical Journal shows that all physical activity, including activities like taking the stairs or cleaning the house, protects health, and the more we do, the more protection we get.
Dr. Hmwe Kyu, an acting assistant professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, and colleagues from Dartmouth and Australia analyzed data from two large surveys to assess the association of exercise with breast cancer, colon cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
The two surveys were the 1999 to 2011 US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and the 2007-2010 Study on Global Aging and Adult Health, which includes data from six countries. The authors studied exercise as not just dedicated recreational exercise, like time on a treadmill, but also everyday activities like climbing stairs, vacuuming, or gardening.
Overall, the authors combined data from 174 smaller studies to show that the current recommendation of physical activity was associated with lower rates of disease, and higher levels of physical activity were associated with even lower rates of disease.
For example, compared to individuals who were not active, those who had low levels of activity had a 10 percent lower risk of colon cancer, those who had moderate levels of activity had a 17 percent lower risk, and those who had high levels of activity had a 21 percent lower risk. These trends were true for breast cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Dr. Kyu’s study shows us the importance of physical activity to our health. Not only does exercise reduce our risk of disease but more activity is better. Physical activity included not just formal exercise but also everyday activities like household chores. This importantly suggests that even though we may not have time for formal exercise every day, making a focused effort to be more active, like taking the stairs at work or walking, rather than driving, to the nearby store, is associated with benefit.
Even for individuals who get time to exercise, there is an incremental advantage to skipping the elevator for the stairs.
The study’s biggest limitation is that although it shows that activity is associated with prevention, the study does not prove that exercise causes less disease because other factors not controlled for in the study, like diet, may have influenced disease. Regardless, Dr. Kyu’s work supports the importance of choosing as active a lifestyle as possible to prevent disease.
Anant Mandawat, a graduate of Lakeside High School and Yale University’s medical school, is a doctor of internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.