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LAUSANNE, Switzerland — A new study finds more physical activity and less time spent in front of the television can help reduce the risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) significantly. Conducted by the European Lung Foundation, this study is the first to investigate the connection between physical activity, sedentary behavior, and OSA risk all at the same time.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea causes breathing to start and stop multiple times as an individual sleeps. Consequently, blood oxygen levels drop and symptoms including excessive snoring, disrupted sleep, and constant daytime tiredness occur. Without treatment, sleep apnea can lead to an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, irregular heartbeat, and type 2 diabetes. OSA is also incredibly common. Estimates show roughly one billion middle-aged adults deal with at least a mild form of sleep apnea.

“We saw a clear relationship between levels of physical activity, sedentary behavior and OSA risk. People who followed the current World Health Organization physical activity guidelines of getting at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week, and who spent less than four hours per day sitting watching TV, had substantially lower OSA risk. Importantly, we saw that any additional increase in physical activity, and/or a reduction in sedentary hours, could have benefits that reduce the risk of developing OSA,” says study leader Tianyi Huang, Assistant Professor and Associate Epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, in a statement.

“The difference in OSA risk between sedentary work and time spent sitting watching TV could be explained by other behaviors that are related to those activities. For example, snacking and drinking sugary drinks is more likely to go along with watching TV compared with being sedentary at work or elsewhere, such as sitting during travelling. This could lead to additional weight gain, which we know to be a risk factor OSA,” he continues.

Sitting down all day can make sleep apnea worse at night

For this study, researchers examined a dataset encompassing more than 138,000 U.S. men and women. None of these individuals had sleep apnea at the beginning of the study. However, by the end of the 10 to 18-year observation period, 8,733 received an OSA diagnosis from a doctor. The intent of the study was to determine the relationship between exercise, sedentary behavior, and OSA risk. Study authors also accounted for additional factors that may influence OSA risk such as age, body mass index, and drinking or smoking habits.

In comparison to people getting the equivalent of two hours worth of walking in physical activity, those averaging around three hours worth of activity per week were 54 percent less at risk of developing sleep apnea. Meanwhile, those watching about four hours of television each week were 78 percent more likely to develop OSA than the most active participants. Also, people working sedentary jobs were 49 percent more likely to receive an OSA diagnosis than the least sedentary individuals.

Stay active any way you can

It isn’t all bad news for people working office jobs, though. Researchers report that their findings suggest exercising during leisure time can help workers lower their OSA risk. On a related note, those unable to exercise as much as they would like due to physical constraints should minimize time spent totally sedentary. Instead of sitting, researchers suggest these individuals try to stand as much as possible and engage in gentle activities.

“OSA is a common and pervasive disorder that can have a serious impact on the quality of people’s lives. Although OSA can be managed with modern treatments, only a minority of studies focus on prevention. Health professionals should prioritize prevention and support people who are at-risk of developing OSA to be more active before it is too late,” notes Professor Anita Simonds.

Prof. Simonds, who did not take part in the research, is president of the European Respiratory Society and Consultant in Respiratory and Sleep Medicine at Royal Brompton Hospital.

“This study adds to the evidence on the importance of maintaining an active lifestyle on preventing lung disease, and it is encouraging that even a small increase in physical activity or reduction in sedentary hours could reap potential benefits. It is therefore an important message to get across to our patients and their families in primary care and respiratory clinics,” she adds.

The study appears in the European Respiratory Journal

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