It is the news that all sloths have been waiting for. Scientists in Germany have found that too much exercise is bad for you and that doing less could lengthen your life.
In a new book called The Joy of Laziness: How to slow down and live longer, Dr Peter Axt, retired professor of health science at Fulda University near Frankfurt, and his daughter, Dr Michaela Axt-Gadermann, a GP, say that everybody has a limited amount of "life energy" and that the speed with which it is consumed determines their life span.
They argue that high-energy activities, such as pounding the treadmill at the gym, accelerates the ageing process and makes the body more susceptible to illness.
"A more relaxed way of life is important for your health," said Dr Axt-Gadermann. "If you lead a stressful life and exercise excessively, your body produces hormones which lead to high blood pressure and can damage your heart and arteries."
Dr Axt-Gadermann said that one key difference between the lazy and those who exercise was that the more active body produces more "free radicals" - unstable oxygen molecules that are believed to speed the ageing process.
She added: "Laziness is also important for a healthy immune system because special immune-cells are stronger in times of relaxation than stress. During relaxation or `down time', your metabolism is less active, which means the body produces fewer free radicals.
"If you do a lot of sport or are permanently stressed, then your body will produce more free radicals and that is one reason why your life could be shortened."Dr Axt-Gadermann, 37, and her 65-year-old father, who are both reformed long-distance runners, also say that laughing is healthier than running.
"When you laugh, your body produces the hormone serotonin which makes you feel happy and relaxed," said Dr Axt-Gadermann.
"The heartbeat races and blood pressure is raised for a short while, without activating your metabolism and producing the free radicals which spend your life energy. Basically, laughing is a good training session without the negative side-effects."
The book also says that laziness is good for the brain. It says that exercise and stress can cause the body to produce the hormone cortisol, which can damage cells in the brain and lead to memory loss and premature senility.
To illustrate the theory that laziness equals longevity, The Joy of Laziness also suggests that early risers are more prone to stress and that late sleepers live longer because they conserve their energy. "People who would rather laze in a hammock instead of running a marathon, or who take a nap instead of playing squash, have a better chance of living into old age."
Dr Axt and his daughter advise readers that gentle walking, their own preferred form of exercise, is sufficient to keep people in shape if combined with a sensible diet that is low in carbohydrates and high in protein.
"We try to put our own ideas into practice but this does not mean that we do nothing all day," said Dr Axt-Gadermann. "Laziness should not be to the extreme and work is an important part of life, but recreation and relaxation should not be underestimated."
The Joy of Laziness, which is published tomorrow, will be essential reading for Dan Kieran, the 29-year-old deputy editor of The Idler, a literary magazine.
"This book definitely makes sense to me," said Mr Kieran, who lives in south London. "I spend one day a week in the office and the rest of my time involved in a lot of relaxation. Having the right amount of laziness in your life is a vital component to being happy. We live in a culture of guilt, where laziness is scorned.
"However, I firmly believe that we do not need to do half as much exercise as people think and it is very important to just lie down and do nothing sometimes," he said.
The medical establishment, however, is sceptical. Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the head of science and ethics at the British Medical Association, said that moderate exercise should not be set aside in favour of lazing around.
"It is a very tempting theory as so often, many of us feel that we cannot be bothered with exercise," she said.
"However, I would not agree that people have a set amount of expendable energy during a lifetime and that exercise is bad for you. In fact, done sensibly, exercise lowers the blood pressure, improves your metabolic state and can improve health and contribute to a longer life."
Dr Graham Archard, the vice- chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said: "I can understand why the book might sell well as it is always nice to be told that you can sit on your backside and do nothing.
"However, 20 to 40 minutes of exercise, three times a week, is the best way to improve cardiovascular health, the immune system and general physical well-being," he said.
A spokesman for the Keep Fit Association, an organisation that promotes fitness through exercise and dance, said: "This is a most unusual idea for a book. Exercising and building up fitness actually improves your mental state and helps you keep pace with the demands of modern life.
"If you neglect exercising and laze around too much, you will not be doing much for your mind or body."
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