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Get moving to reduce your health risks and cut medical costs – Vitality Habit Index

Get moving to reduce your health risks and cut medical costs – Vitality Habit Index
(Illustrative image generated by AI)

Rather than relying on an intense physical activity routine, the key lies in consistently integrating manageable, low to moderate-intensity activities over time.

A recent study by Discovery Vitality and the London School of Economics found that sustaining a healthy habit such as increasing physical activity could decrease mortality rates by as much as 52% for people older than 65.

Although the often-touted 10,000 daily step goal is not based on science, Vitality’s research shows that if you walk at least 5,000 steps three times a week for at least two years, you could add up to three years to your life and reduce your healthcare costs by up to 13%. This is based on the assumption that you were previously inactive.

health physical activity

(Graphic: Supplied)

The Vitality Habit Index tracked the physical activity and nutrition behaviours across one million Vitality members over 10 years to determine the best ways to form and maintain healthy habits, and to understand the science of how healthy habits can lead to longer, healthier lives.

Globally, insufficient physical activity is associated with up to five million premature deaths every year, and estimates suggest that one in five deaths is now associated with poor diet, with 1.5 billion people predicted to be obese by 2035.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 27.5% of adults and 81% of adolescents are physically inactive.

If this level of inactivity continues, new cases of preventable non-communicable diseases (such as type 2 diabetes) will cost health systems $27-billion a year, according to a 2022 WHO global status report on physical activity.

The impact on you

Major positive impacts of healthier habits were seen across all age groups; however, this was particularly true for older generations, showing that it’s never too late to start.

People 65 and older saw a 52% reduction in mortality risk after sustaining a habit of 7,500 steps three or more times per week. This is significantly greater than those aged between 45 and 65, who saw a 38% reduction in mortality risk, and the total population, which saw a 27% reduction.

The research indicates that doing 7,500 steps per day on average achieves the bulk of the reduction in common-cause mortality, with additional incremental health improvements beyond this “sweet spot”.

On average across all age groups, those who sustain a healthy physical activity habit – physical activity three times per week for more than two years – can add between 2.5 years (for men) and three years (for women) to their life expectancy.

Lowering your risk of type 2 diabetes and cancer

The research analysed the impact of forming and sustaining a physical activity habit on an individual’s risks of developing type 2 diabetes and severe cancer.

It is estimated that 529 million people have diabetes globally, costing billions in treatment costs each year. The Habit Index showed that people who sustain a habit of physical activity three days a week for three years can reduce their type 2 diabetes risk by up to 41%.

Similarly, there are major benefits for those with the condition already. A 55-year-old with type 2 diabetes who changes from limited physical activity to sustain a habit of 5,000 steps three times a week, reduces their all-cause mortality risk by 40%.

Forming and sustaining a habit of physical activity for three days a week was also associated with a 10% reduction in in-hospital healthcare costs and a 13% reduction when sustaining an average of more than three days of physical activity in a week (regardless of intensity) for two years.

Incentivising and sustaining healthy habits

The Habit Index reveals that sustainable physical activity habits are formed gradually, in laddered increments, starting with a lower target.

So, rather than relying on a sudden, intense physical activity routine, the key lies in consistently integrating manageable, low to moderate-intensity activities over time.

Based on the research, three rules for creating robust habits emerged:

  • Start low and slow – don’t be too ambitious. People who start with low to moderate-intensity exercise at low frequency are likely to maintain their habit 1.5 times longer than those who start with high-intensity workouts.
  • Use “habit laddering” – set a target based on your aims and existing health status. For example, when inactive, start with 2,500 steps three to five times a week as the “first step on the ladder”.
  • Focus on consistency then intensity. Keep up the activity to form the habit and only increase the intensity once the action has been repeated for between six and eight weeks.

Dinesh Govender, Discovery Vitality’s chief executive, says it is encouraging to note that forming even the smallest healthy habit at any age can be life-changing.

“For example, when it comes to severe cancer, the research showed promising results among Vitality members who changed their behaviour from being unengaged to sustaining at least medium levels of physical activity to reduce their risk of stage three cancer by 19% and stage four cancer by 36%.” DM


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