You know that smoking is bad for you, but what about skipping your workouts? According to a new study from researchers at the Cleveland Clinic, lack of exercise can be just as bad for your health as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, and other well known health risks. In some cases, CBS News reports, not exercising can be even more deadly than those conditions. Dr. Wael Jaber, the lead author on the study, was surprised by the findings, since traditional risk factors like blood pressure or cholesterol get most of the attention.
“But we found that the biggest risk is just under our nose: being physically less fit,” he told CBS News.
The study’s comprehensive data set makes these findings even more compelling. Dr. Jaber and his colleagues combed through records of more than 122,000 patients who took exercise treadmill tests at the Cleveland Clinic, dating back to 1991. Then the researchers separated the patients into five groups based on their fitness level: low, below average, above average, high, and elite. The elite group was made up of the top 2.3 percent based on age and gender, and had a fitness level similar to endurance athletes.
Across all the groups, increased physical fitness created a major benefit to overall health, and significantly reduced a person’s risk of death. The researchers also found that there was no upper limit to the benefits of exercise: The fittest people in the study (the elite group) showed the lowest mortality risk. Across groups, elite performers had an 80 percent lower risk of mortality than the low-performing patients. Even more striking, not exercising proved to be just as detrimental to overall health than traditional risk factors like diabetes—in some cases, lack of exercise had an even worse effect than these conditions.
In the study, the researchers conclude that the findings “illustrate the importance of aerobic fitness as a powerful, modifiable indicator of long-term mortality.” Translation: If you want to live healthier and longer, make sure you run, hike, swim, or bike—and do it often.