It isn’t smoking, drinking or overeating that could double your risk of early death…

It’s being a couch potato.

That’s right, research has found that not getting enough exercise for 20 years is linked to a two-times risk of premature death compared to being physically active.

“Our findings imply that, to get the maximum health benefits of physical activity in terms of protection against premature all-cause and cardiovascular death, you need to continue being physically active,” says study author Dr Trine Moholdt of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway.

The good news is that you can also reduce your risk by taking up physical activity later in life, even if you have not been active before.

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Over 23 000 people studied over 20 years

For this study, all residents of Norway aged 20 and older participated in 1984-1986, 1995-1997, and 2006-2008 survey in which they were asked about their frequency and duration of leisure-time physical activity.

A total of 23 146 men and women were included in the analysis and their physical activity was categorised as inactive, moderate (less than two hours a week), and high (two or more hours per week).

Physical activity data were linked to information on deaths until the end of 2013 using the Norwegian Cause of Death Registry.

The researchers found that people who were inactive in both 1984-1986 and 2006-2008 had a two-fold higher likelihood of all-cause death and 2,7-fold greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Those with moderate activity at both time points had 60% and 90% raised risks of all-cause and cardiovascular deaths, respectively, compared to the reference group.

How much exercise should you be getting?

The recommended amount of exercise adults should do to optimise their health is 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity.

“An important point to make here is that physical activity levels even below the advised levels will give health benefits,” said Dr Moholdt, “Physical fitness is more important than the amount of exercise. Clinicians should individualise their advice and help people do even smaller amounts of activity that will improve fitness – this includes all types of exercise that makes you breathe heavily.”

Quick full-body Tabata workout by Chontel Duncan

Add more movement to your day

If you don’t enjoy the gym or struggle to find the time to work out, Dr Moholdt suggests trying to get more movement into your everyday life.

“For example, walk to the shops instead of driving, get off the metro a stop early, and use stairs instead of the lift. I recommend everyone to get out of breath at least a couple of times each week.”

The study also found that people who went from inactive to highly active had a mortality risk that was between those who were continually active or continually sedentary. In contrast, those who went from highly active to inactive had a similar risk of dying as those who were inactive at both surveys.

“Our data indicate that you can compensate for a previously inactive lifestyle and the sooner you get active, the sooner you will see positive results,” says Dr Moholdt. “My advice is to establish good exercise habits as early in life as possible. The health benefits extend beyond protection against premature death to effects in the body’s organs and on cognitive function. Physical activity helps us live longer and better lives.”

5 Realistic ways to fit in exercise when you don’t have time

Source: European Society of Cardiology via

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.