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We Are in Dire Need of Physical Exercise

Forget running. The latest research shows that nearly two thirds of us do not even meet the minimum exercise recommendations for walking. With minimum activity levels defined as 30 minutes of physical activity with moderate-intensity on at least five days a week or 20 minutes of physical activity with vigorous-intensity on at least three days a week, or an equivalent combination, nearly 55% of people in the Western World fail to reach the criteria.

As if these figures were not already dismal enough, the actual situation seems to be yet worse. This data typically comes from self-reported questionnaires and we know we are prone to make ourselves look better. In studies where physical activity levels were measured with accelerometers, the figures shrunk to a shocking 5% who were reaching minimum recommendations for physical activity levels. And, let us not forget these are minimum activity levels, not the optimal activity levels. The US Institute of Medicine advises that we target one full hour of moderate activity every day. It also recommends the inclusion of muscle strength training exercises, such as weight lifting, at least twice a week.

But the thing is, there is little campaigning to change this situation. In comparison to other big risk factors for disease such as diet, smoking and alcohol abuse, physical activity has lagged behind in the recognition stakes. The general perception is that the benefits of exercise are restricted to weight loss and, therefore, only needed by those who wish to lose weight. A part of the problem is that many of us find it hard to fit physical activity into our busy schedules. But, even the best dieting program is doomed to fail if we are not physically active due to irreversible declines in our non-resting energy expenditure.

It would be a mistake to confine physical activity merely to weight loss, when its benefits are so profoundly far reaching. Studies show that a lack of physical activity plays an important role in increasing the risk of most prevalent chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, causing as many premature deaths as smoking. A twelve year study of over 60 years olds found the death rate of the unfit was more than three times those who were fit. But, if we explore it a bit deeper we see that being active also greatly improves our quality of life. A positive impact on sleep, mood, self-confidence and an increased sense of wellbeing are all attributable to being physically active.

When we talk about being physically active, what we should be thinking about is our relationship with our environment. But the age of technology we now live in has made us lazy. Physical and manual work has become all but phased out. We have a far greater reliance on motorised transport with corresponding decrease in cycling and walking. Add in the use of lifts and escalators and common labour saving devices and our choice of sedentary leisure activities (pubs, restaurants, internet, television, etc.) and we can see where the problem comes from. Add it all up and you get the shocking statistic:

The difference between the activity levels from fifty years ago and today is the equivalent of running a marathon once a week!

It is no wonder we have seen such a dramatic increase in our chronic disease burden over this period. The real challenge is to take the first steps and commit to just one change that will increase our physical activity levels. Park in a space further away from the office, get off the bus one stop earlier, leave the canteen early and go for a walk around the block at lunch, take the stairs, instead of the lift, do some gardening, play with your kids in the park, extend the dogs walk a bit longer or start a sport you enjoy. Not only will you become healthier, you will feel better and younger and you will not want to stop.