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Health Risks of Physical Inactivity

Mercola, J. (2022, January 21). Health Risks of Physical Inactivity. Mercola.


  • Inactivity can reduce insulin sensitivity and lower protein synthesis in your body; not all older adults can recover after returning to normal activity levels
  • Inactivity is associated with an increased risk of noncommunicable conditions including cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, low back pain, and mental health disorders
  • Regular exercise and physical activity also reduce your risk of infections due to anti-inflammatory influence and immune regulation

Decades of fitness research remind us that physical activity is one of the best preventive measures available. It's one of the pillars of good health alongside nutrition, sleep, and hydration. Evidence has demonstrated the effect that exercise has on sleep quality, mental health, heart disease, and metabolic conditions. For example, in one meta-analysis1 of 305 randomized controlled trials including 339,274 participants, researchers compared exercise with drug interventions on mortality in diabetes and heart disease. They found there was no statistically detectable difference in those who used exercise or who took medication in the prevention of coronary heart disease and diabetes. In fact, exercise was found to be more helpful than prescription drugs for those who'd had a stroke.

Physical activity is also a key factor for longevity. Those who engage in regular exercise have a reduced risk from all-cause mortality.2 As discussed in another study published in JAMA,3 researchers concluded "cardiorespiratory fitness was inversely associated with all-cause mortality" and it "is a modifiable indicator of long-term mortality."

Inactivity Increases Several Health Risks

The World Health Organization believes that their data show physical inactivity as a leading cause of disability and disease throughout the world.10 It is estimated 3.2 million deaths each year could be linked to physical inactivity. Much of the research on fitness and exercise has been on the impact it has on noncommunicable diseases and longevity.11 In one assessment of the associated risks, researchers estimated that by getting rid of inactivity, 6% to 10% of all major non-communicable diseases could be eliminated.

These results prompted headlines comparing inactivity to smoking, as the number of deaths is nearly the same.12 People who are less active have a higher potential risk of high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, depression, and anxiety.13 Other effects from inactivity include:14

Fewer calories being burned Muscle weakness
Poor aerobic fitness Bone loss
Reduction in metabolism Poor blood circulation
Increasing inflammation Potential hormonal imbalance


Avoid Back Pain or Worsening Medical Conditions

Another risk of inactivity is lower back pain, one of the more common health complaints and a major cause of disability.15 It is also one of the more common triggers for an opioid pain prescription that may lead to dependence. Exercise and non-exercise movement are two foundational treatments for lower back pain. In a systematic review of the literature,16 researchers found that those who exercised lowered their risk of developing back pain by 33%. They also found that exercise reduced the severity in those who had back pain at the start of an intervention. The researchers concluded that a combination of strength training with stretching or aerobic exercises done two to three times a week is recommended for the prevention of lower back pain.

People with underlying medical conditions may experience a worsening of their health with inactivity. In a commentary in Nature Reviews Rheumatology,17 the authors warn of the potential dangers for those who have rheumatic diseases. People with these conditions have an increased risk of infection or complications from respiratory illnesses. The negative clinical effects in the pediatric population with rheumatoid diseases include muscle atrophy, weakness, fatigue, insulin resistance, and reduced physical capacity. Although bedrest was a treatment used in the past, data show this leads to joint destruction.

How Exercise Improves Your Immune System

There is strong epidemiological evidence that regular exercise and physical activity reduce the number of infectious diseases older adults will experience.18 While there is ample evidence of its long-term benefits on health, the effect of a single session continues to be analyzed. One study was conducted to explore the assertion that after exercising just once, the body has a heightened immune surveillance and regulation function. The authors of this investigation also believe there is a physiological limitation to or delay in aging of the immune system with regular physical activity. In a second review19 scientists summarized research evidence including the results of acute and chronic exercise on the immune system and the effect on immunosenescence (immune system aging). The data show a logical and inverse relationship in the risk of illness for those who exercise moderately.

Leading physiologists James Turner and John Campbell recently published an analysis in which they argued that a higher number of infections are more likely to be linked to20 "inadequate diet, psychological stress, insufficient sleep, travel and, importantly, pathogen exposure at social gathering events like marathons — rather than the act of exercising itself." Turner commented:21 "But people should not overlook the importance of staying fit, active and healthy.”

Lack of Exercise Jeopardizes Older Adults

Unfortunately, the trend for inactivity rises with age.23 In addition to the health risks and immune compromise associated with physical inactivity in seniors, it also increases the risk for balance problems, broken bones, and disability. In older adults with arthritis, a lack of physical activity has been associated with a measurable decline in the ability to do activities of daily living such as meal preparation, grocery shopping, taking medications, and managing money.24

In this study, functional ability deteriorated more in women and minorities, which the researchers attributed to a higher number of comorbidities such as diabetes, stroke, depression, and cognitive impairment. In another study of older adults, scientists found that at the end of a 10-year follow-up period, those who were sedentary were more likely to have trouble walking.25

Develop a Healthy At-Home Activity Routine

Working or staying home can open the door for poor movement routines. If you previously had to get out of your chair at the office every 30 minutes or if you had a job that required you to spend hours on your feet every day, binge-watching television or playing games on your computer can throw a wrench in those habits. As a rule, getting even a little bit of exercise is better than nothing. Avoid sitting as much as possible, as the simple act of bearing weight on your legs helps reduce your risk of unwanted health conditions.

There are a variety of ways to use safe, simple, and easy exercises at home. Here are several suggestions to help you improve the amount of time you're out of your chair so you get at least 30 minutes of exercise each day:

My BEST Recommendation is blood flow restricted training and would strongly encourage you to try it. This strategy allowed me to gain about 20 pounds of muscle mass in my first year and increase my deadlift to 400 pounds. My body changed so much my ring size actually increased. This is exciting as muscle mass is one of the most important characteristics you want as you age. Not only will it decrease frailty, but the additional glucose receptors on the muscle will make sure your glucose stays in a healthy range. Below are other important strategies you can implement, but they pale in comparison to strength training.

  • Activity snacks —Phillips suggested26 "Prolonged periods of sitting should be broken up with 'activity snacks' like a little walk or going up and down a flight of stairs. A short daily walk has amazing properties from not just a physical but a psychological perspective. We don't have to run a marathon." In other words, small movements may have big benefits. Consider taking a walk in the morning and another in the afternoon as the weather permits. Getting outdoors has additional benefits for your immune system, specifically from your exposure to the sun that may boost your vitamin D production.
  • Nonexercise Movement —This type of activity may be as important as exercise. Make it a point to get up from your chair at least every 30 minutes or more to stretch and move around. If you are working from home or spending more time in front of a computer or television screen than what is considered healthy, opt for using a Swiss ball. These large, inflatable balls can be ordered online and most come with a pump. Sitting on one at your desk or while watching television encourages movement and helps strengthen your core muscles.
  • Strengthening —With inactivity, you can lose muscle mass and strength. You don't need a gym or fancy equipment to get a workout. In fact, you don't even have to leave home. For more on how to get a strength training workout at home, see "No Time for the Gym Today? Try This at Home."
  • Indoor Exercise —Getting some aerobic activity and exercise at home is not nearly as challenging as you might imagine. If you don't have a favorite aerobic workout video, consider climbing the stairs or purchasing a stationary bike, which can be delivered straight to your door.