Will a relaxing holiday kill you?

A woman on a deckchair on a sunny beach
18th May 2017

According to recent news coverage, taking it easy on a two-week holiday could be deadly. We debunk the headlines.

 

A new study suggests that reducing your step count for two weeks could have potentially fatal consequences.

 

The researchers, from Liverpool University, asked 28 fit young adults to reduce their daily steps by 80 per cent from 10,000 (the amount the NHS recommends that we aim for) to just 1,500.

 

This meant they went, on average, from 161 minutes a day of moderate-vigorous activity to 36 minutes a day, and increased their sitting time by an average of 129 minutes.


According to the University of Liverpool press release, after 14 days they had lost muscle and their waistlines were on average 1cm larger. Because putting on weight around your middle is a risk factor for heart problems, the researchers suggested that this two-week reduced step count could be linked to heart problems and diabetes.

Their fitness levels also declined – they were not able to run as fast or for as long. Two weeks after they resumed their 10,000 daily steps their lean muscle and waistlines were not the same as before the study began. 

It is important to note that despite the news headlines, the study didn’t look at holidays specifically; none of the participants were on holiday.

The media coverage is based on a presentation at a health conference in Portugal. The reporters have written and published this story without seeing the full study, which is not yet published. Although the press release does refer to changes which could increase your risk of diabetes and heart conditions, we don’t know what the overall increase in risk from a 2-week period of inactivity is actually likely to be.

The participants’ steps were measured by a Sensewear arm band. The press release doesn’t give any information about which model was used, or whether this is an accurate form of monitoring, and we don’t know whether the accuracy was tested as part of the study. Some published research suggests that this may not be a completely accurate way of measuring step count. 

It is important to note that the study didn’t look at holidays specifically

The coverage

The headlines and newspaper stories chose to equate a two-week period of inactivity to a holiday in the sun. We don’t know whether this reduction in activity is comparable to a holiday – some people are more active when they’re on holiday.

The news coverage suggests that relaxing and holidays are harmful, for example The Sun used the headline ‘CHILLAX ON HOL IS 'DEADLY'’. But the studying did not look at relaxing – it looked at reducing the amount of physical activity and increasing sedentary behaviour. ‘Deadly’ may also be an overstatement as the study did not find that anyone died after two weeks of reduced activity.

Similarly, the Daily Mail article says ‘Just 14 days of lounging around on a beach affects your muscle mass and produces metabolic changes that drastically affect your heart health’. However, it doesn’t give any numbers to suggest what they mean by a drastic effect, and these statistics are not publicly available yet.

The Telegraph also covered the story, with the headline ‘Two week holiday could be the death of you: study shows lazy break makes muscles waste away’. It mentions that there were also ‘startling changes’ to their metabolism, but again doesn’t include any relevant statistics to suggest this. 

It is very difficult to apply these results to the wider UK population

The study

The researchers used just 28 people in this study, who were young, (with an average age of 25), healthy and more active than the UK average. Therefore it is very difficult to apply these results to the wider UK population, or people who are older than 25. We don’t know whether the same results would be seen if the study was repeated with a larger number of people.

The study also only looked at participants for two weeks after they resumed their normal activity levels. We do not know the long-term effect of two weeks of reduced activity on muscle mass, metabolism, or weight. 

The BHF View

Emily Reeve, BHF senior cardiac nurse, says: “Sedentary behaviour is recognised as a risk factor for heart and circulatory disease, and we know that breaking up long periods of time spent sitting can help improve your heart health. 

"Don’t let this coverage put you off going on holiday: instead, try to include some fun activities like going for a walk or a swim, to make the most of your break.”

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