JUST two and a half hours of walking every week can extend life by more than three years, research has found.
And researchers discovered that the health benefits of low-level physical exercise extended to people who are overweight.
A major study involving 650,000 people was carried out to determine how much exercise someone needed to affect their short and long-term health.
The researchers showed that life expectancy was 3.4 years longer for people who completed 150 minutes of easy exercise a week.
They also found the more exercise people did, the longer they were likely to live – with people doing five hours of walking a week increasing their lifespan by 4.2 years.
The National Cancer Institute in the United States found that more physical activity was associated with longer life expectancy at all body mass index (BMI) levels but, unsurprisingly, people with a healthy BMI were the most likely to live even longer – up to an extra 7.4 years in some cases.
The institute now says that people aged between 18 and 64 should be encouraged to undertake two and a half hours of light exercise a week. Researchers say this is exercise which still enables someone to speak, rather than become breathless.
For people who do moderate exercise, such as higher-intensity activities including aerobics, they need only take part in 75 minutes a week to reap the benefits.
Lead author Dr Steven Moore said: “Our findings highlight the important contribution that leisure-time physical activity in adulthood can make to longevity, for everyone.
“Adding even low amounts of leisure-time physical activity to one’s daily routine, such as 75 minutes of walking per week, may increase longevity.
“Regular exercise extended the lives in every group that we examined in our study: normal-weight, overweight and obese people.
“Physical activity above the recommended levels, or even higher, appears to increase longevity even further.”
But he said health benefits relating to increased longevity started to plateau at approximately 300 minutes of brisk walking per week.
Scottish Government guidelines recommend that adults build up at least 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days of the week. The latest figures show just a third of adults in Scotland complete this amount.
Study partner Dr I-Min Lee, of Harvard Medical School, said: “We must not underestimate how important physical activity is for health – even modest amounts can add years to our lives.”
The study found that regular exercise, including walking, helped to maintain healthy bones, muscles and joints, and promoted psychological well-being and improved happiness. It also reduced the risk of certain diseases, including heart disease and some cancers.
The study revealed the association between physical activity and life expectancy was similar between men and women, but that black people gained more years of life expectancy than white people.
It also showed that being inactive and of normal weight was associated with 3.1 fewer years of life compared with being obese and active.
The relationship between life expectancy and exercise was found to be stronger among those people with a history of cancer or heart disease than those with no history of either disease.