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With Physical Activity, No Need to Be an Olympian

Watching the Olympics probably made some people feel a little guilty about not exercising. The truth is, if physical inactivity were a sport, a lot of us could give a gold-medal performance.

To mark the London Olympics, the Lancet, a British medical journal, published a series of papers about the problem of inactivity. Public health experts say physical inactivity is the world's fourth leading cause of death. They estimate that inactivity plays a major part in six to 10 percent of deaths from non-communicable diseases. These include conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and colon and breast cancer.

I. Min Lee at the Harvard School of Public Health worked with a team that studied inactivity. She says the findings are conservative and may even underestimate the problem.

She says, "Physical inactivity is harmful to health, as harmful as far as deaths are concerned, as smoking." The researchers compared data on physical inactivity with disease rates in 122 countries.

I. MIN LEE: says researchers considered many behaviors in their study that may be associated with increased or decreased risk of disease. She says, "For example, we know that if you are active, you probably smoke less. Additionally we factored out obesity, independent of the fact that active people also tend to weigh less."

Harold Kohl is with the University of Texas School of Public Health. He also worked on the special report. He says physical inactivity should be recognized as a global epidemic. "We have to realize that high income countries are the most inactive around the world," he says, "but low to middle income countries are not going to be far behind as things change." He says as economies develop, people basically engineer activity out of their daily lives.

Harold Kohl points to campaigns that continue to reduce smoking and alcohol use. He says the time has come to target physical inactivity as a major threat to public health. He also says it is becoming clearer that our environment plays a big part in whether we exercise or not.

I. Min Lee agrees -- and she urges people to do moderately intense exercise for 150 minutes a week."Anything you can do is great!" She says, "Even if you don't reach that 150 minutes a week, a little is better than none and more is better than a little." She plans to return every four years -- just like the Olympics -- to give a progress report on how the world is doing.

For VOA Special English, I'm Mario Ritter. (Adapted from a radio program broadcast 15Aug2012)

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