A sedentary lifestyle may be twice as deadly as obesity, results of a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggest. However, even a small amount of exercise is enough activity to reduce the risk of early death by as much as 30%.

“Studies that have examined the combined associations between physical activity, body mass index (BMI), and mortality suggest that physical activity protects against premature death but does not eliminate the increased risk associated with high BMI,” wrote Ulf Ekelund, PhD, of the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and colleagues.

To examine if overall and abdominal adiposity modified the association between physical activity and all-cause mortality, the investigators conducted a cohort study with data culled from 334,161 European men and women. Over an average of 12 years of follow-up, the researchers measured height, weight, waist circumference, and self-reported levels of physical activity.

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A moderate amount of physical activity, compared with no activity, was the key to lowering the chances of premature death, the study authors found. Exercise that burns between 90 and 100 calories per day could reduce the risk of early death by 16% to 30%. The effect of moderate exercise was greatest among normal-weight patients, but even overweight and obese patients saw a benefit.

Using the most recent data on deaths in Europe, the investigators found that 337,000 of the 9.2 million deaths of European men and women were linked to obesity. However, twice that number of deaths could be linked to a lack of exercise, the scientists added.

“Efforts to encourage even small increases in activity in inactive individuals may be beneficial to public health,” concluded the researchers.


  1. Ekelund U et al. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015; doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.100065