Being a Couch Potato Could Kill You and the Global Economy

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Photo: John Slater/Getty Images

You’re probably aware that working out is good for your health and not working out is bad for you. But not one, not two — but three reports this week further proved that inactivity is unhealthy and costly. Inactivity’s publicist is not having a great day.

First, a study of Swedish, middle-aged men found that low aerobic capacity was second only to smoking as a risk factor for premature death. Part of aerobic capacity, or VO2 max, is genetic, but most of it is determined by factors like exercise and weight. The study followed these men for 45 years and found that VO2 max levels generally correlated with their exercise habits: The more exercise they reported, the higher it was.

Smoking was the biggest risk factor for premature death, followed by low aerobic capacity, then high blood pressure or bad cholesterol. The study doesn’t prove cause and effect but the authors speculate that being fit may lower the risk of chronic diseases (and other habits fit people might have, like eating a well-rounded diet and getting enough sleep, could be at play, too).

The second study (a review of research actually) determined that people who sit for eight hours a day, a.k.a most office workers, need to do one hour of physical activity daily to offset the health risks from all that seated time. Scientists found in the follow-up period of the study that those who did so had a lower risk of dying than people who sat less but weren’t active. Researchers say that the 60 minutes of activity doesn’t have to be vigorous: things like walking and moderate cycling count.

The last paper determined that in 2013, the worldwide economic burden of inactivity — or “the global costs of sloth” — was a staggering $67.5 billion. That figure includes health-care costs and productivity losses from five major diseases associated with inactivity: heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, and colon cancer. Type 2 diabetes on its own accounted for $37.6 billion of the costs. And researchers called this billion-dollar number a “conservative estimate”; it’s likely two to three times higher because there are as many as 22 conditions linked to inactivity.

So, no pressure or anything, but maybe it’s time to get moving. Perhaps Michelle Obama would be interested in becoming Trainer-in-Chief come January?