Exercise prevents millions of early deaths

Some four million early deaths are being averted worldwide every year by people being physically active, a study suggests.

Researchers calculated the figures after deciding that too much focus is given to the negative health consequences of modern sedentary and inactive lifestyles.

Instead of repeatedly telling people they will suffer if they fail to exercise, health leaders should celebrate the benefits of getting active, the team says.

The findings by researchers at the Universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge have been published in the medical journal, The Lancet Global Health.

Published data

The team, including researchers from Moray House School of Education and Sport, studied previously published data from 168 countries.

They did so to find out how many people met the recommended physical activity guidelines – 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week

The proportion of the population meeting these World Health Organisation recommendations varied widely – from 33 per cent in Kuwait to 94 per cent in Mozambique. The UK figure was 64 per cent.

Relative risk

Researchers combined these data with estimates of the relative risk of dying early for active people, compared with inactive people. By doing so, the authors could estimate the number of premature deaths prevented each year through exercise. 

They found that globally, premature deaths rates were 15 per cent lower than they would have been thanks to physical activity –equating to approximately 3.9million lives saved per year.

By contrast, health experts often frame the debate in terms of the number of early deaths due to lack of physical activity – estimating that 3.2million die prematurely each year.

Lives saved

By focusing on the number of lives saved, the researchers says they can we can tell a good news story of what is already being achieved.

They hope their findings will encourage governments and local authorities to protect and maintain services in challenging economic climates.’

Despite considerable variation in physical activity levels between countries, the positive contribution of physical activity was remarkably consistent across the globe.

Broad trend

There was a broad trend towards a greater proportion of premature deaths being averted in low- and middle-income countries.

In low income countries, an average of 18 per cent of premature deaths were averted compared with 14 per cent for high income countries.

In the US, 140,200 early deaths were prevented annually and, in the UK, the total was 26,600.

The research was primarily funded by the Medical Research Council.

​​​​​​​There is value in trying to understand the benefits that healthy behaviours confer in order to argue for maintaining and increasing them.

Dr Paul KellyMoray House School of Education and Sport


By focusing on the number of lives saved, we can highlight how much benefit physical activity is providing and make things even better.

Dr Tessa StrainUniversity of Cambridge


Related links

Moray House School of Education and Sport

Physical Activity for Health Research Centre


[Image credit: lzf via Getty Images]