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More than 110,000 deaths per year could be prevented if U.S. adults over 40 spent just 10 additional minutes a day engaging in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, according to a new study. Adding 20 or 30 minutes of such activity could save even more lives.

In a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine, researchers from the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed activity monitor data to estimate the potential public health impact of increasing physical activity in the United States.


We have a growing body of work that shows the benefits of staying active.
Dr. Nathan Parker, Health Outcomes and Behavior Department

Researchers paired a week’s worth of activity monitor data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 2003 and 2006 with the National Death Index data available through 2015. This study analyzed the physical activity levels of 4,840 adults ages 40 to 85 from across the United States, with wearable accelerometers measuring duration and intensity of physical activity. The authors used statistical models, accounting for other characteristics including age, sex, race and ethnicity, education, body mass index (BMI), diet, smoking, alcohol and chronic health conditions to estimate how many deaths per year may be prevented with incremental increases in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Individuals who were frail or had mobility impairments were assumed to be unable to increase their physical activity in these models, helping the authors increase the relevance of their findings to the actual population of U.S. adults.

The authors extrapolated their findings from the representative sample out to the entire U.S. population, finding that if adults 40 and older increased moderate-to-vigorous physical activity by 10 minutes per day, 111,174 deaths could be prevented every year. Adding 20 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity could save 209,459 lives, and 30 minutes could prevent 272,297 deaths. These benefits were seen in men and women, including Mexican Americans, non-Hispanic Black Americans and non-Hispanic white Americans (the survey includes oversampling for non-Hispanic Black and Mexican American participants).

“We have a growing body of work that shows the benefits of staying active,” said Dr. Nathan Parker of the Department of Health Outcomes and Behavior at Moffitt Cancer Center. “This study uses objective physical activity data to show the potential to reduce early deaths across our population by simply moving more. Moderate physical activity is feasible for most of us and can be as simple as going for a brisk walk.”


If you’ve never exercised before, talk to your doctor about how to get started safely. Start small and gradually increase the frequency, duration and intensity. Here are some ways that might help you add 10 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity to your day:

  • Walk the dog (or take the long way to lunch or your next meeting)
  • Ride your bike
  • Do yoga
  • Hop on an exercise bike or treadmill
  • Climb stairs on your break
  • Hike at a local park
  • Throw the Frisbee with your kids
  • Compete in activity-based videogames
  • Perform several rounds of body weight exercises (lunges, situps and pushups) while watching TV
  • Check out fitness apps and online classes
  • Find an activity you enjoy such as gardening, playing tennis or golfing (preferably without the cart)

Parker notes that individuals should ask their physicians about safety if they have concerns about increasing their activity levels for the first time. “Think about engaging in activities during which your heart rate and breathing increase to the point where you can hold a conversation speaking in short sentences. That’s moderate physical activity. Over time, you’ll progress and be able to handle more frequent, longer and more intense physical activity. Choose activities you enjoy, and aim to build them into your daily routine consistently.”

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to estimate the number of preventable deaths through physical activity using accelerometer-based measurements among U.S. adults while recognizing that increasing activity may not be possible for everyone. However, one week of monitoring may not reflect changes in activity over time, and the observational study design limits the direct determination of causality,” the authors wrote.

Although we cannot take findings from an observational study to mean that more physical activity caused longer survival, these findings add to a growing knowledge base regarding associations between physical activity and improved health outcomes. A JAMA Oncology study that published earlier this month showed that cancer survivors with less active lifestyles have a higher risk of death, and another study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise demonstrated that 45 minutes of exercise a day could help reduce your risk of cancer.