Experts have long associated sedentary lifestyles with poor health outcomes, but a recent study was a little more specific. It found that those who had led a physically inactive life for at least 20 years had a twofold greater risk of premature death when compared with physically active people.

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New research suggests that 2 decades of sedentarism may double the risk of premature death.

The researchers presented their findings at the European Society of Cardiology (ECS) Congress 2019, which took place in Paris, France.

The researchers looked at how physical activity over 22 years was linked to death in general, and more specifically, death from cardiovascular disease.

In prior studies, researchers evaluated physical activity and its effects on mortality in a different way. These earlier studies typically involved researchers asking participants about exercise habits once and then following them for a few years.

In this study, the researchers included how physical activity habits and behaviors change over time. They wanted to look deeper at the connection between physical activity over a long timespan and how it tied into mortality rates.

This recent study, led by Dr. Trine Moholdt of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, in Trondheim, Norway, used information from the HUNT study. The Hunt study recruited Norwegian residents aged 20 or over, and checked up on their physical activity over three different periods: 1984–1986, 1995–1997, and 2006–2008.

At each follow-up, researchers asked participants about the frequency and duration of both leisure time and physical activity. This current study used data from the first and third surveys and included extra statistics on death up to 2013

The researchers established a reference group that consisted of people who reported a high level of exercise during the first and third periods for comparison purposes.

The researchers compared the high exercise group with those who were not physically active in both 1984–1986 and 2006–2008. They found that those in the low activity group were twice as likely to die from all causes and had a nearly threefold greater risk of death due to cardiovascular disease.

Dr. Moholdt notes that there is a range of recommendations about how much exercise an adult should do. For example, the American Heart Association (AHA) state that regular exercise can help reduce a person’s chances of developing cardiovascular disease.

Their current recommendation is for people to aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week. This can include brisk walking, swimming, dancing, or cycling.

They also note that even if someone is not very active, doing a little bit of exercise here and there can have cardiovascular benefits.

The AHA say that only about 50% of adults in the United States get adequate exercise. They also add that sitting down for prolonged periods can compound the problem and negate some of the benefits of physical activity.

Other heart-healthy habits include eating more fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains, and fish while limiting salt, saturated fats, processed meats, and fried foods. They also recommend avoiding tobacco and setting a goal to achieve — and keep — a healthy weight.

Another important finding from the study indicates that making even small changes can lead to improved health, notes Dr. Moholdt.

Physical fitness is more important than the amount of exercise. Clinicians should individualize their advice and help people do even smaller amounts of activity that will improve fitness — this includes all types of exercise that make you breathe heavily.”

Dr. Trine Moholdt

She explains that their data show that even for those who were previously inactive, making changes later in life can have benefits. Exercise may not only guard against premature death, but it can also help keep the body’s organs and cognitive function in good shape.

“Physical activity helps us live longer and better lives,” she says.