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Study Shows Activity Increases Life Expectancy

By Aemilia M. Phillips, Contributing Writer

Staying active and maintaining an average body weight can lead to a 7.2-year gain in life expectancy, according to a study released by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital last week.

The study, conducted in collaboration with the National Cancer Institute, surveyed 650,000 individuals of all ethnicities and body mass indexes, aged 21 – 90. Results show that gains in life expectancy are much greater for those who begin regular physical activity earlier in life.

“Those active at a young age also tend to be more active as they grow older, so it is good to start being active at a young age,” wrote Harvard Medical School professor and senior author of the study I-Min Lee in an email.

Despite the busy schedules of college students that can make it difficult to follow an exercise regiment, exercise is crucial even at this early age, according to Meir Stampfer, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

“People have a tendency to only think of years added on when they’re 89 years and older. But for a young person, the benefit of physical activity might be preserved vitality,” he said.

Finding opportunities to exercise can be difficult in an increasingly sedentary society, according to the study. The report examined “brisk walking,” an accessible alternative for those intimidated by intense fitness regiments.

Lee’s work shows that someone who walks 150 minutes per week, the amount of exercise recommended by the federal government, will add 3.4 years to someone’s life expectancy. A lesser workout of 75 minutes per week would add 1.8 years.

“I think people neglect the benefits gained from brisk walking. It seems daunting for people [but it’s] just a matter of prioritizing,” said Stampfer.

One of Stampfer’s studies also explores the benefits of exercise for people with varying states of health. This study involved monitoring physical activity in prostate cancer patients.

“Exercise prevents illness, but is also beneficial during illness,” Stampfer said. “In the prostate cancer patients who exercised, there was a decreased death rate compared to those who did not.”

In Lee’s study, the results were consistent for those with higher weights.

“Many individuals in the US are overweight or obese. For such persons, it is often difficult to reduce weight,” wrote Lee in an email. “What is encouraging is that our study shows that by being physically active, even overweight/obese persons can increase their life expectancy compared to someone their weight who is not active.”

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School of Public Health