Exercise prevents almost 4 million early deaths a year worldwide

Beautiful fit woman in good shape jogging alone on city bridge.
Exercise has known benefits for physical and mental health. (Getty Images)

Exercise prevents almost four million premature deaths a year, research suggests.

The benefits of regular physical activity are well known, with going for a walk, jog or cycle linked to everything from a reduced risk of cancer to improved mental health.

To better understand how it impacts mortality, scientists from the University of Cambridge looked at data from 168 countries.

Results suggest at least 3.9 million premature fatalities are warded off every year in people between 40 and 74 years old as a result of exercise.

Read more: Running a marathon for the first time knocks four years off your 'heart age’

The scientists analysed data that showed the proportion of people who met the World Health Organization’s guidelines on exercise.

It recommends either at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise or a combination of both.

Results – published in The Lancet Global Health – reveal the countries whose residents achieved this varies substantially, from a third (33%) in Kuwait, 64% in the UK and 94% in Mozambique.

This data was then combined with estimates on the risk of dying early among active people compared to those who do not exercise.

Read more: Walking counts as exercise

In the UK and US alone, being active is thought to save 26,600 and 140,200 lives a year, respectively.

On a global scale, the fatality rate is said to be around 15% lower on average than if we were all sedentary.

This was most marked in low-income countries, where 18% of premature fatalities are thought to be averted due to exercise, compared to 14% in high-income nations.

Woman watering flowering plant in backyard
The University of Cambridge scientists recommend people stay active by gardening during the coronavirus lockdown. (Getty Images)

Rather than focusing on how inactivity costs lives, the scientists hope to flip the message on its head by demonstrating how exercise helps people stay around longer.

“We're used to looking at the downsides of not getting enough activity - whether that's sports or a gym or just a brisk walk at lunchtime - but by focusing on the number of lives saved, we can tell a good news story of what is already being achieved,” said study author Dr Tessa Strain.

“It tells us how much good is being done and helps us say, 'look how much benefit physical activity is already providing, let's make things even better by increasing physical activity levels further’.”

Read more: Food labels 'should list the exercise required to burn the calories'

Co-author Dr Paul Kelly from the University of Edinburgh added: “Research into lifestyle factors such as lack of physical activity, poor diet, drinking alcohol, and smoking, tends to focus on the harms these do to health.”

“This helps create a narrative to try and prevent and reduce these behaviours.”

The coronavirus outbreak means gyms are closed for the time being.

The scientists therefore recommend people keep active by going for a daily walk, cycle or run; doing yoga; gardening; or joining an online class.