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Physical inactivity as harmful as smoking

Annual Report - Winter 2013

By Erica Quiroz

Exercise enthusiasts have an ally in Xifeng Wu, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of MD Anderson’s Department of Epidemiology.

Her recent study of more than 400,000 participants in a Taiwan cohort evaluated different volumes of physical activity and questioned whether fewer than the currently recommended 150 minutes a week of exercise is enough to reduce mortality and increase life expectancy.

Xifeng Wu, M.D., Ph.D.

What she and her team found is that people who are inactive increase their risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes by 20% to 30%.

“Inactivity is as harmful as smoking,” Wu says. “People should know that physical activity can increase their lifespan.”

She used her background in epidemiology, statistics, laboratory study and clinical research to develop a new approach that stresses the harms of inactivity rather than the benefits of exercise.

Wu says smoking and physical inactivity each contributes to more than 5 million deaths a year.

By repurposing the World Health Organization’s MPOWER, a package of six tobacco control measures, Wu has designed a strategy to educate the public about the risks of inactivity.

  • Monitor inactivity prevalence and factors behind it.
  • Protect safety of exercisers.
  • Offer services for inactive people to gain skills for sustainable exercise.
  • Warn the public of the hazards of inactivity.
  • Ensure the medical community fulfills its responsibility to reduce inactivity.
  • Raise money or find funding to encourage physical activity and discourage inactivity.


The Taiwan cohort study found:

  • 15 minutes of exercise a day can extend people’s expected lifespan by three years, compared to those who are inactive.
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