Higher levels of exercise can achieve bigger reductions in the risk of five common diseases – but only if people push themselves far beyond the World Health Organisation’s recommendations, Australian researchers say.
An analysis of 174 studies found gardening, household chores and more strenuous activities like cycling or running were “strongly associated” with a lower risk of stroke, breast and bowel cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
But US and Australian scientists concluded that total physical activity per week should be five to seven times the minimum that the World Health Organisation recommends.
WHO recommends people conduct at least 600 metabolic equivalent minutes (Met minutes) of physical activity – the equivalent of 150 minutes a week of brisk walking or 75 minutes of running.
The study suggests most health gains are achieved between 3000 and 4000 Met minutes a week.
The lead author, Hmwe Kyu from the University of Washington, says: “Major gains occurred at lower levels of activity. The decrease in risk was minimal at levels higher than 3000 to 4000 Met minutes per week.
“A person can achieve 3000 Met minutes per week by incorporating different types of physical activity into the daily routine.
“Climbing stairs for 10 minutes, vacuuming for 15 minutes, gardening for 20 minutes, running for 20 minutes, and walking or cycling for transportation for 25 minutes, on a daily basis, would together achieve about 3000 Met minutes a week.”
Analysing studies published between 1980 and 2016, the researchers found the pattern was most prominent for coronary heart disease and diabetes and least prominent for breast cancer.
For example, individuals with a total activity level of 600 Met minutes per week had a 2% lower risk of diabetes, compared with those reporting no physical activity.
An increase from 600 to 3600 Met minutes reduced the risk by an additional 19%. The same amount of increase yielded much smaller returns at higher levels of activity.
The authors say their findings have important implications.
“With population ageing, and an increasing number of cardiovascular and diabetes deaths since 1990, greater attention and investments in interventions to promote physical activity in the general public are required,” they write.
Simon O’Neill of Diabetes UK says: “It’s important to remember that all activity counts and a good way to increase your physical activity is to simply incorporate it into your daily life – for instance, getting off the bus a stop or two earlier, or walking to the shops.
“Also try to discover a physical activity you enjoy doing such as dancing, cycling or gardening. This will make it far easier for you to stick with it, as it will become part of your routine.”
Findings were published online in the BMJ by Hmwe Kyu of the University of Washington, Seattle, and colleagues. The data comes from 174 studies comprising 149,184,285 total person-years of follow-up.