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1998: walk a couple of kilometres a day and halve your chance of dying

Scientific studies showing that physical exercise increases your life expectancy started to appear decades ago. We found one in the 1998 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine - a study which demonstrates clearly that exercise has a positive effect on health. Indeed, physical exercise improves cholesterol balance, keeps your weight healthy, lowers blood pressure and reduces the chances of developing diabetes. But even if you filter out all these effects, exercise still increases life expectancy.


Amy Hakim, a biostatistician at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, and her colleagues used data that had been collected for the Honolulu Heart Program. This involved 707 non-smoking retired men aged 61-81.

The study started in 1980-1982, and the men reported the number of kilometres they walked each day. The researchers followed the men for 12 years.

The more kilometres the men walked each day, the lower their chance of dying. The men who walked more than 3.2 km per day halved their chance of dying compared with the men who walked less than 1.6 km per day.

1998: walk a couple of kilometres a day and halve your chance of dying

1998: walk a couple of kilometres a day and halve your chance of dying

Exercise reduces the chance of developing type-2 diabetes, improves the cholesterol balance, has a slimming effect and lowers blood pressure. But when the researchers filtered out the effect of diabetes, hypertension, cholesterol, BMI and other factors, the life-extending effect of exercise remained. This was partly because exercise protects against cancer.

Some of the men had smoked in the past, and in them physical exercise also reduced the chance of dying.

Epidemiological studies reveal associations, but the extent to which these are causal is often subject to much debate. The researchers were aware of this. "Unfortunately, observational studies often have a limited ability to describe relations between physical activity and the risk of disease because of difficulties in quantifying highly variable behavioral patterns on the basis of self-reported information and individual recall," they wrote.

"Selection bias may also exist among older members of the Honolulu cohort, since morbidity and mortality may have removed men who were perhaps less fit, leaving a group of healthy survivors who were more robust."

"Of course, the effects on longevity of intentional efforts to increase the distance walked per day by physically capable older men cannot be addressed in our study."

1998: walk a couple of kilometres a day and halve your chance of dying

"Our findings do, however, provide some evidence that mortality is reduced when the distance walked is increased. In the light of previous evidence that active lifestyles reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and other adverse outcomes in younger and more diverse groups of people, increasing the amount of low-intensity activity is likely to benefit the health of the elderly as well."

"In addition, compliance with recommendations to increase the time spent in simple activities such as walking, which require only modest amounts of effort, may be easier to achieve than compliance with recommendations of more vigorous exercise."

N Engl J Med. 1998 Jan 8;338(2):94-9.

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