Which is Unhealthier Being Obese or Being Physically Inactive?

Which is Unhealthier Being Obese or Being Physically Inactive?

(Last Updated On: March 29, 2019)

Which is Unhealthier Being Obese or lack of exercise?

If you made a list of risk factors for health problems like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke, obesity and lack of exercise would be high on the list. We all know about the growing problem of obesity and the statistics on physical activity are no better. Only about 20% of adults get the recommended amount of exercise – 150 minutes of moderate or vigorous exercise each week. You might think that obesity is the more important of the two risk factors when it comes to the disease, but a new study suggests otherwise.

 Risk Factors for Early Death: Lack of Exercise Tops the List

Researchers at the Yale University Prevention Research Center followed 334,000 men and women for 12 years. Over the course of the study, they monitored their physical activity (by self-report) along with their weight and size of their waistline. Based on this data, they found a lack of exercise trumped obesity as a risk factor for premature death. In fact, the team of researchers believes the number of premature deaths due to lack of exercise may be double the amount attributable to obesity.

Of course, the ideal situation would be to maintain a normal body weight AND exercise regularly. The fact that lack of exercise is a strong risk factor for early death isn’t surprising. The health problems that regular physical activity lowers the risk of is extensive. Some of the benefits of exercise include:

.   Lower risk for heart disease and premature death and improves markers for heart health

.   Lower risk for some forms of cancer

.   Lowers blood pressure

.   Favorable effects on blood lipids, including HDL cholesterol and triglycerides

.   Reduces markers for inflammation

.   Enhances immune function in the absence of overtraining

.   Improves bone health and lowers the risk for osteoporosis

.   Improves insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control

.   Reduces age-related loss of muscle mass, known as sarcopenia

.   Enhances memory and cognition and may lower the risk for age-related memory problems, based on some studies

.   Improves mood and may lower the risk for depression and reduce anxiety symptoms

.   Helps with weight control

.   Improves body composition

Can you imagine a prescription medication that had THIS many benefits? It would cost a fortune, but you can get the benefits free without swallowing a single pill. With the world so focused on the growing problem of obesity, this study suggests we should focus more on getting people to stay active.

 Structured Exercise and Sedentary Behavior: They’re Aren’t Necessarily the Same

Lack of exercise and being sedentary are two distinct issues, both of which are bad for your health. Let’s say a person spends an hour a day working out, sleeps for seven hours and mostly sits the rest of the time. That’s about 16 hours a day of inactivity. Can an hour of structured exercise erase the health effects of 16 hours of sitting? Apparently not. Research shows sedentary activity, a.k.a sitting too much, is an independent risk factor for health problems like heart disease, type 2-diabetes, and premature death.

Doing a daily workout has substantial benefits, but sitting the rest of the day offsets some of the benefits that come from working up a sweat during a formal exercise session. Recent studies show the amount of time you spend sitting negatively impacts metabolic health and cardiovascular risk factors even if get the recommended amount of structured exercise daily and weekly. Sitting too long during the day is an independent risk factor for heart disease, metabolic problems, and premature death.

Being Sedentary Affects Metabolic Health

One form of sedentary behavior is watching television. How much do you move around when you’re parked in front of the television set? Maybe just enough to head to the kitchen for a snack. An Australian study found a link between hours spent watching T.V. and undiagnosed glucose problems, including insulin resistance.

Here’s the real kicker. Another study looked at the effects of television watching on metabolic health in people who worked out at least 150 minutes weekly, the recommended guidelines. This study still showed a link between hours spent watching television and a wide range of metabolic issues including elevated glucose, increased blood pressure, high triglycerides, low HDLs, and increased waist circumference. The message? You can’t work off the effects of sedentary behavior with a daily workout.

Unfortunately, we’re living in a time when modern-day conveniences like computers and automation make it easy to sit too much. That’s unlikely to change in the future. Therefore, you have to make a conscious effort to add more activity to your daily life, irrespective of your daily workout. Engaging in more unstructured activity throughout the day can help you avoid the metabolic pitfalls of sitting too much and help with weight control.

Unstructured Movement

Researchers classify non-structured activity into a category called NEAT, non-exercise activity thermogenesis. NEAT is all the energy you expend over the course of a day that isn’t part of a formal workout. It includes activities like climbing stairs, cleaning the house, making dinner and even “wasted” activity like fidgeting. Here’s where it gets interesting.

People who have active jobs that keep them moving throughout the day can burn up to 1,000 more calories than employees who have a sedentary job. That’s a pretty substantial difference! From this perspective, it’s not hard to see how people who have office jobs, even if they do a structured workout daily, are more prone to weight gain. Those extra movements you make during the day – parking far away, taking the stairs, taking a lunchtime walk, standing instead of sitting, stretching at your desk – add up to better metabolic health.

The Bottom Line?

Humans are made to move and designed not to sit for long periods of time. This study shows that staying active is one of the most important things you can do to avoid metabolic problems and prolong your life. Do a structured workout, but don’t use it as an excuse to sit the rest of the day.



Health Day. “Lack of Exercise More Deadly Than Obesity, Study Suggests”

Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2010 Jul;38(3):105-13. doi: 10.1097/JES.0b013e3181e373a2.

Curr Cardiovasc Risk Rep. Jul 2008; 2(4): 292-298.

Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2010;3(3):105-109.

Mayo Clinic. “Endocrinology Update”

Endocrinology Update. “The NEAT Defect in Human Obesity: The Role of Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis”


Related Articles By Cathe:

Is Staying Lean Harder Than It Was 30 Years Ago?

Exercise and Longevity: Can You Add Years to Your Life by Working Out?

Can Strength Training Lower Your Risk of Dying Prematurely?

How Sedentary Is the Average Person and How Sedentary Are You?

Does Low-Intensity Exercise Have Health Benefits Too?


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