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While Olympians Peak, Lack of Activity Remains a Leading Global Cause of Death

  • Rosanne Skirble

United States' Allyson Felix crosses the finish line to win the women's 200-meters final ahead of compatriot Carmelita Jeter, left, and Ivory Coast's Murielle Ahoure, at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Physical inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide. Seeking to raise awareness about the problem, the British journal, The Lancet, is highlighting the problem during the Olympic Games, when attention is focused on athletes at the top of their game.

Lack of exercise also contributes to up to 10 percent of deaths worldwide from diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and colon and breast cancer, according to the special issue of the Lancet.

The impact of physical inactivity is comparable to smoking, says Harvard University epidemiologist I. Min Lee, who worked with a team to produce the Lancet report, comparing data on physical inactivity with disease prevalence in 122 countries.

Lee says the findings are conservative and may even underestimate the problem.

“When we did our analysis,” she says, “we looked at increased risk of disease after taking into account other health habits that may be associated with physical activity." For example, Lee adds,"We know that if you are active, you probably smoke less. Additionally we factored out obesity, independent of the fact that active people also tend to weigh less.”

Also writing in the Lancet, epidemiologist Harold Kohl with the University of Texas School of Public Health, says physical inactivity, because of its global reach, high prevalence and harm, should be recognized as a global pandemic.
An obese person might not only die sooner, but could also experience years of poor health.
An obese person might not only die sooner, but could also experience years of poor health.

“We have to realize that high income countries are the most inactive around the world, but low to middle income countries are not going to be far behind as things change, as their economies improve and their people rely more on the improvements that basically engineer physical activity out of our daily lives.”

Kohl points to focused campaigns that continue to reduce smoking and alcohol use, arguing it is time to target physical inactivity as a major threat to public health.

He says reducing inactivity is not only the responsibility of the individual, but of the community, “how we rely on the transportation sector or how our cities or neighborhoods are designed, how crime can be minimized to help people become more physically active in their neighborhoods, simply walking to the store or walking down and being outside with friends and family."

Kohl says these broader environmental issues are becoming much clearer in terms of their effects.

Lee agrees, and hopes the numbers in her Lancet study jumpstart change, including the challenge to do 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise a week.

“Anything you can do is great,” she says. "Even if you don’t reach that 150 minutes a week, a little is better than none and more is better than a little.”

And, she adds, just like the Olympics, she intends to return every four years with a report to gauge how all of us are doing.