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A walk a day may keep early death away

BEIJING - APRIL 19:  Competitors are shrouded with smog as they take part in the men's 50 km walk race during the 2008 BBMG IAAF Race Walking Challeng...
Competitors take part in a walk race in Beijing, China. Guang Niu / Getty Images

Get off your duff and take a walk. 

Too harsh? Too much on TV? Too much work? Too bad, because just one energetic, 20-minute stroll each day could slash your risk of suffering an early death, perhaps adding untold years through with those extra steps, scientists reported Wednesday. 

In fact, by tracking more than 330,000 European men and women over a 12-year-span, experts determined that twice as many deaths may be tied to a lack of exercise as by obesity. 

And for sedentary folks, making only a "modest" bump in your daily motion seems to particularly bestow your bodies with a bevy of bountiful benefits, they said in their report, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

"Fairly small amounts of physical activity, such as 20 minutes of brisk walking each day appears beneficial," said Ulf Ekelund, of the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit at Britain's University of Cambridge and the Norwegian School of Sports Science. Ekelund led the study. 

"To put it simply: sit less, move more, and the more the better."

What constitutes "brisk?" Maintain a walking speed of about 3 to 4 miles per hour during those 20 minutes, Ekelund suggested. For people with "mean body weights," the walkers should burn between 90 and 110 calories through that jaunt. 

Even better: if you are a person who doesn't exercise, adding that daily walk would elevate you from a group of people the scientists classified as "inactive" to a subset they dubbed "moderately inactive." And that change alone could reduce your risk of premature death by anywhere between 16 to 30 percent, Ekelund said. 

In monitoring those 330,000 Europeans, the health boost from walking was shown to be highest among "normal weight individuals," but even folks with a higher body mass index (BMI) measured some benefits, the study said. 

An adult with a BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An adult with a BMI between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight.

"This study adds to the mounting evidence that movement and activity makes a difference in your health, even if you are not at your ideal weight," said Dr. Edward Laskowski, a professor in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Mayo Clinic, and co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center.

"You don’t have to run marathons. Consistent, small doses of exercise like walking are effective," Laskowski added. 

The findings that a daily, stroll of 20 minutes may reduce a person's risk of premature death by up to 30 percent are consistent, Laskowski said, with the physical activity guidelines for Americans. Those were developed by a consortium of health and fitness groups under the auspices of the Department of Health and Human Services. The guidelines recommend 150 minutes of "moderately intense activity" per week. What's more, the guidelines are based on earlier research that showed substantial cardiovascular and other health benefits from logging just that amount of exercise. Benefits go up, however, as people get closer to 300 minutes per week. 

"Walking is simple, doesn’t require a lot of expensive equipment, and you can do it with family or friends in a multitude of locations," Laskowski said. "Any activity is better than no activity, and the more we can weave activity into our lifestyle and families, the better the benefits we will reap."

He speaks with a personal passion. Laskowski incorporates regular walking into his own fitness program, he said. 

"Walking clears my mind, gives me energy, and helps my sleep and my mood," Laskowski said. "The days I am not able to get out and be active as much, I don’t feel as good.” 

Participants in the study were all involved in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) Study. Over an average of 12 years, researchers gauged their heights, weights and waist circumferences. Participants used self-assessment to measure their own levels of physical activity, the study noted. 

Ekelund and colleagues then looked at who died over the next 12 years. 

Lower risks of early death from walking were spotted in the data for both the normal-weight group and those carrying more pounds, the study found. For example, people at a healthy weight who were classified by the researchers as active dropped their odds of early death by 30 percent when compared to those from the inactive group. 

And among people who are considered obese due to their BMI, their risk reduction was 16 percent if they were active compared to folks who do not exercise.