Talk About Obvious: Health Benefits of Physical Activity

It is talking about the obvious when we say that physical exercise is good for your health. But as statistics of obesity-related diseases and death grow all over the world, it makes you wonder if the message gets through to people, or the facts related to the health benefits of an active life are explained well enough.

In the next series of Vitality® New Zealand Newsletters, we will be showing a systematic review of scientific papers that talk about the effects of physical exercise on preventing and attenuating obesity-related health issues such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes mellitus (or simply “diabetes”), bone and joint diseases and depression.

Cardiovascular Diseases

Having an active lifestyle (i.e. physical exercises) has been linked to drastically reduce the cardiovascular-related death risk in both men and women, as well as many other serious conditions such as diabetes, bone and joint diseases (osteoporosis and osteoarthritis) and depression.

Although being physically active can be free and widely available, the number of sedentary people around the world continues to grow especially within high income earners and in developed nations (see Nature Vol. 493, 2013: Biochemistry to Behavior).

So, it’s no wonder that increased physical fitness can reduce premature death in people without the predisposition to heart diseases[1]. Regular exercise has also been scientifically proven to attenuate the risk of premature death in heart patients.

Primary benefits of Physical Activity

Research on the health benefits of regular physical exercises have been around since the 1950s. Warburton and colleagues (2013) compiled hundreds of scientific papers from various years and sources in order to create a verified list of articles on the effects of physical exercises on human health. The authors found that a most of the research showed a reduction in relative risk by about 20% to 30% from cardiovascular disease and diabetes[2]. In fact, some researches have shown improvements in the risk factor as high as 50%.

The risk of cardiovascular disease related deaths is staggering higher among inactive middle-aged women (52% higher) than among their most active counterparts[3]. What is most frightening about these numbers is that sedentarism is linked to as many cardiovascular-related deaths as moderate cigarette smoking or hypertension[4]. So, if you are not very active but think that you are safe from premature death caused by heart disease because you don’t smoke or don’t have a genetic predisposition, think again!

Cardiovascular problems can be prevented by even small improvements in physical fitness. As little as 1 hour of walking per week can significantly reduce (up to 70%) cardiovascular-related death.[5]

Secondary Benefits of Physical Activity

The death risk related to chronic heart diseases can also be reduced through regular exercises. In the past, doctors used to recommend rest to any heart patients. However, modern science in fact supports the importance of regular exercise to attenuate or even reverse the disease process in patients with chronic cardiovascular problems. Attention: the minimum training intensity recommended for patients with heart disease is generally 45% of heart rate reserve[6].


Source: Warburton et al. (2006).


[1] Erikssen G. Physical fitness and changes in mortality: the survival of the fittest. Sports Med 2001;31:571-6. Erikssen G, Liestol K, Bjornholt J, et al. Changes in physical fitness and changes in mortality. Lancet 1998;352:759-62. Blair SN, Kohl HW III, Barlow CE, et al. Changes in physical fitness and all-cause mortality. A prospective study of healthy and unhealthy men. JAMA 1995;273:1093-8. Bijnen FC, Feskens EJ, Caspersen CJ, et al. Baseline and previous physical activity in relation to mortality in elderly men: the Zutphen Elderly Study. Am J Epidemiol 1999;150:1289-96.

[2] Macera CA, Hootman JM, Sniezek JE. Major public health benefits of physical activity. Arthritis Rheum 2003;49:122-8. Macera CA, Powell KE. Population attributable risk: implications of physical activity dose. [discussion 640-1]. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2001;33:S635-9.

[3] Hu FB, Willett WC, Li T, et al. Adiposity as compared with physical activity in predicting mortality among women. N Engl J Med 2004;351:2694-703.

[4] Blair SN, Kampert JB, Kohl HW III, et al. Influences of cardiorespiratory fitness and other precursors on cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality in men and women. JAMA 1996;276:205-10.  Wessel TR, Arant CB, Olson MB, et al. Relationship of physical fitness vs body mass index with coronary artery disease and cardiovascular events in women. JAMA 2004;292:1179-87. Katzmarzyk PT, Church TS, Blair SN. Cardiorespiratory fitness attenuates the

effects of the metabolic syndrome on all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality in men. Arch Intern Med 2004;164:1092-7.

[5] Erikssen G. Physical fitness and changes in mortality: the survival of the fittest. Sports Med 2001;31:571-6. Erikssen G, Liestol K, Bjornholt J, et al. Changes in physical fitness and changes in mortality. Lancet 1998;352:759-62.

[6] Hambrecht R, Niebauer J, Marburger C, et al. Various intensities of leisure time physical activity in patients with coronary artery disease: effects on cardiorespiratory fitness and progression of coronary atherosclerotic lesions. J Am Coll Cardiol 1993;22:468-77. Franklin BA, Swain DP, Shephard RJ. New insights in the prescription of exercise for coronary patients. J Cardiovasc Nurs 2003;18:116-23.


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