We all know that smoking is bad for your health, and if you are addicted to tobacco and light a cigarette, you probably know that you are doing yourself harm. But would you feel the same guilt for lying on a sofa to watch series every afternoon after work?
Well, it turns out that spending a lot of time inactive is, in the long run, as bad for your body as smoking.
This is assured by various scientists who have studied the effects of a sedentary lifestyle on health.
This is of particular concern in these times of pandemic, with most of us forced to stay home much longer than usual.
Without having to travel to and from work, and with gyms and other enclosed or restricted sports spaces, some of us go straight from the computer chair to the sofa or mattress (with some passes through the kitchen to stock up on food, such as that bread we learned to bake during our quarantine).
But while being constantly at rest seems harmless, it is not for your body.
“We know that being inactive increases your risks of developing many chronic diseases like theheart disease, strokes, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer“Harvard University professor I-Min Lee, who in 2012 led a study on sedentary lifestyle, published in the journal, told the BBC. The Lancet.
“Since it is such a common risk factor in many of the chronic diseases that we suffer, in general rules, if you are physically inactive your risk of premature mortality is probably comparable to smoking“he warned.
Just as risky
The expert is not the only one who argues that lack of physical activity should be considered as risky for health as smoking.
Another study carried out in the United States in 2018 by the prestigious Cleveland Clinic suggested that a sedentary lifestyle could even affect our life expectancy more than smoking.
The work, led by cardiologist Wael Jaber and published in the journal of the American Medical Association, analyzed the mortality statistics of a group of 122,007 patients who had undergone a stress test at the Ohio clinic between 1991 and 2014.
The experts found that those who were in better physical condition led a longer and healthier life.
In contrast, those who had been underperforming had the highest mortality rates.
“Not being in shape when running on a treadmill or on a stress test has a worse prognosis, in terms of mortality, than being hypertensive, diabetic or being a smoker“Jaber told CNN.
Researchers in Sweden reached similar conclusions in another study published in 2016 in the journal European Journal of Preventive Cardiology (“European journal of preventive cardiology”).
Scientists at the University of Gothenburg compared mortality associated with sedentary lifestyle with other risk factors more commonly associated with cardiovascular problems and confirmed how harmful inactivity is.
“Low physical capacity represents a higher risk of death than high blood pressure or high cholesterol“said the study’s lead author, Per Ladenvall.
“The benefits of physical activity throughout life are clear,” he said.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) the “sedentary lifestyle” increases the chances of death between 20% and 30%.
The agency estimates that “up to five million deaths per year if the world population were more active “.
The figure is not so much less than the seven million people who die each year from smoking.
However, few are aware that not exercising carries a risk similar to that of lighting a cigarette.
“We’re not saying, ‘Don’t worry if you smoke as long as you’re physically active,'” Dr Lee told the BBC.
“What we want is to give perspective that all these risk factors are bad, and that we should see physical inactivity as equally important than not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and a healthy diet, “he said.
“You have to try to eliminate all these risk factors.”
One of the things that worries the most about a sedentary lifestyle is that it especially affects the youngest.
According to WHO statistics, “81% of adolescents do not get enough physical activity“, a figure three times higher than that of adults.
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The agency considers inactivity “a global public health problem”, although experts such as Dr. Lee assure that it has already acquired pandemic levels.
Another cause for alarm is that lack of physical activity doesn’t just kill. The WHO has warned that it is also one of the main causes of disability in the world.
“Physical inactivity is so bad for our health because activity benefits almost every physiological system in our body. By moving, we improve our health,” Lee explained.
The good news
But the same scientists who warn about the serious effects of sedentary lifestyle also emphasize how easy it is to avoid this damage.
“Just by walking briskly from 15 to 30 minutes a day we can significantly improve our health “, highlighted the Harvard expert.
I mean, you don’t have to join a gym, become a runner or practice some other sport to stop being sedentary.
It is not even necessary to leave the house: going up and down stairs, standing on tiptoe, going up and down, or gardening (for those who have some green space), it is enough.
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The important thing is to be on the move for two and a half hours every week, that is 150 minutes.
Getting around by bike instead of by car or getting off before public transportation and walking a few blocks each day are also other easy ways to meet the weekly activity requirement, if you have the ability to get out of the house.
In the case of children and adolescents, it is recommended that they be active at least one hour every day, although it does not have to be an hour in a row.
The benefits of exercising are so powerful, it has even been found that they can slow down the aging process.
That’s what a team of British researchers led by Janet Lord, director of the Institute for Inflammation and Aging at the University of Birmingham, in the United Kingdom, found.
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Lord, who agrees that “nowadays sitting for a long time is for the body what smoking used to be”, shared with BBC Mundo last December the “surprising” results of a study that analyzed the effects of intense physical activity on the immune system.
“In studies with people who were active from young to old – cyclists up to 80 years old who continued to do 100 km or 150 km a week – the results were incredible“, said the expert.
“They had a lot of T cells,” he explained, referring to key lymphocytes in our body’s defense system, which kill pathogens or infected cells, but tend to decline with age.
The researchers discovered why these people had an unusually high number of T cells: they had managed to prevent their thymus, the organ that produces these lymphocytes, from shrinking, which begins to contract after the age of 20, reducing to just 3% of her size for 70s.
Beyond these amazing results, Lord noted that you don’t have to hit those activity levels to see an improvement in health.
“Just do something. Anything you can do helps, “he advised.
For her part, Dr. Lee also stressed that exercise is particularly beneficial as we get older.
“One of my teachers said that Anything that gets worse when you get older gets better when you stay physically active“.
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