So here's the scoop. You're twice as likely to die from sitting around doing nothing as you are from eating a lot. That's really good news, especially for those of you whose first thought when I said "scoop" was "ice cream!" I'm not saying that you can now eat all the ice cream you want (although eventually some 'scientific study' will 'prove' that it's good for you, especially when combined with red wine and chocolate) but what I am saying is that if you're willing to move your body in at least some of the ways it was designed to move in, you'll live longer.
Let me explain. First off, obesity is a big problem in this country. And every day we hear more about the links between obesity and a whole range of serious, chronic, and life-threatening diseases. And people who are overweight simply don't live as long as people who are considered 'normal' weight. Ever hear the expression, 'there are old people and there are fat people, but there are no old, fat people'? These are facts, pesky as they may be. So I am not in any way trying to play down the importance of eating healthy foods, cutting down on sugars, and paying serious attention to a growing waistline or butt and thighs.
What I am going to do is talk about being active. I was being serious when I said it was good news that inactivity kills you at twice the rate that obesity does. It's good news because choosing to move or not move is waaayyy easier than choosing what to eat. Think about it. The amount of information that we have to sift through and knowledge that we have to accumulate in order to figure out which foods are good and which foods are bad is daunting even for those of us who do this for a living. And don't get me started on the MIS-information put out there by food companies trying to sell 'chocolate-frosted sugar bombs' which have added Vitamin D and must therefore be good for you, and media outlets who pick up on the dumbest studies (see 'wine and chocolate' above) because they've run out of stuff to say.
Moving is different. You don't need to know much in order to get active. If you spend all day sitting in a chair you'll probably notice that not sitting in a chair is vastly different. If you're standing in line at Starbucks (never use drive-throughs: get your butt out of the car and move!) you'll notice that walking back out to your car is different. If you go walk for a mile and decide to make it two miles it'll take twice as long! The point here is that we all know how to stop being inactive and start being active, or how to increase the amount of movement we do in a day, whether it's by walking or running or swimming or going to yoga or doing push-ups or lifting weights. You already instinctively know that activity and movement and exercise are good for you. What follows is the proof and the encouragement to get it done.
So now for the serious stuff. Science. Research. Results. The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (known as the EPIC study), was first published in January of 2015 but didn't get a lot of airtime. It deserves a lot of airtime. Studies that look at the long term effects of diet and exercise are rare because they're hard to do. Real research takes time and money and people - lots of people willing to do weird stuff. I was reminded of that recently when a study was published 'proving' that one (yes 1) minute of intense exercise was as good as 45 minutes of moderate exercise. That's amazing! Incredible! A magic pill! But take a closer look. 25 subjects, all male, split into three groups (that's just eight and a third people in each group), exercising for 12 weeks. I love the study, and wished I had been involved in the research because I'm a huge believer in high intensity exercise, but should we all bin the exercise classes at the gym and the bike rides and the marathon training and start doing 60 seconds of burpees every morning instead? Probably not. It's a great starting point. If we can add a few hundred or a few thousand more people, male and female, and follow up for a few years, we might just have something.
But back to the EPIC study. Epic in name, epic in nature. 519,978 volunteers from 23 centers in ten countries. Mean follow-up time was 12.4 years and complete data was collected from 334,161 people. Now THAT'S a study!
Okay, but what was the point of the study and what were the findings? I hear you ask. Excellent questions! So the basic idea was to look at a large group of 'normal' people of all shapes and sizes from different cultures and backgrounds and measure what those shapes and sizes were. Then take a look at how active these people were (both at work and at home) and try to figure out who was going to die tomorrow and who was going to live forever.
Okay so you're way ahead of me, I know. Skinny people who exercise every day live forever (or at least until someone gets really fed up of them talking about how skinny they are and how they exercise every day). The biggest and heaviest people who do not exercise at all can look forward to a relatively short (and sometimes pretty miserable) life. All good (or bad) so far and pretty obvious. But I wouldn't have wasted, I mean, invested, all this time telling you about the EPIC study if there wasn't an EPIC bombshell. So here it is...
The heaviest people who exercise are likely to live longer than the skinny people who don't exercise. I'll let that sink in.
Scientifically speaking, avoiding all inactivity (i.e. exercising) would theoretically reduce all-cause mortality by 7.35%. Corresponding estimates for avoiding obesity were just 3.66%. Let me use a real world example - taken from the study - to illustrate what that means. 9.2 million people died in Europe in 2008. Results from this study estimate that 676,000 deaths were attributable to physical inactivity compared with 'only' 337,000 attributable to obesity.
Before I drop the microphone I'll encourage you to get moving. Get exercising. Be active. Changing your diet may take some planning and be difficult for some (most), but deciding to take the stairs, walk the dog, run around the block, or even join a gym can be done today. Right now...
About the author: Alan Greening is Chief Fitness Officer of Benefitness Partners, a Denver-based company committed to the health and wellness of companies and their employees. With a focus on event-based coaching, Benefitness Partners gets employees moving in a fun, educational, and inclusive manner, helping companies develop a healthier, happier, more engaged workforce.