Half an hour of moderate activity a day is all it takes to improve overall fitness and health, say experts, yet many of us still fall short of this target. So how can we fit more exercise into our daily routine without it feeling like a chore?
According to the Department of Health (DoH), six out of 10 men and seven out of 10 women are not active enough to benefit their health, doing less than the recommended 30 minutes of exercise five days a week. Among children, four out of 10 boys and five out of 10 girls are not meeting the recommended one hour of exercise a day.
The health benefits of regular exercise are well established, and include a reduced risk of heart disease, hypertension, stroke and diabetes type 2; increased life expectancy; and improved breathing, blood supply, muscles and bones. According to NHS Direct, additional benefits include increased confidence, better posture and improved appearance.
"People must take responsibility for their own health"
Recent research conducted at the University of Heidelberg in Germany and published in the journal Heart suggests that “couch potatoes” can make up for lost time if they begin exercising over the age of 40. The study involved 312 coronary heart disease patients aged 40-68 and 479 healthy "control" subjects, all of whom charted their levels of physical activity from the age of 20.
The results showed that participants who had been “fairly active” or “very active” throughout their adult years had a 62 per cent lower risk of heart disease than those who had not taken exercise as an adult. However, people who had been sedentary between the ages of 20 and 39, but began exercising at 40 or later, still reduced their heart risk by 55 per cent. Those who were active in their twenties and thirties, but then slowed down after 40, had a 35 per cent reduced risk.
People who have not been physically active for some time should aim to make gentle, steady progress in their efforts to get fit, recommends NHS Direct, which says that the key is to start slowly and build up gradually. "You should get a bit sweaty and slightly out of breath without feeling pain", it explains.
NHS Direct warns that short periods of intense exercising after months of doing nothing can cause injuries, while over-exercising and over-dieting are linked to eating disorders and osteoporosis (brittle bones disease). “It can also be de-motivating if you can't keep up with unrealistic targets, such as increasing your running distance too quickly, or trying to lose weight too fast,” it adds.
Exercise can help keep your mind fit, too
Research suggests that physical activity not only benefits the body, but may also help preserve mental faculties and possibly protect against dementia. One recent US study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry showed “significant effects” on cognitive function and brain metabolism among participants who followed a 14-day “healthy lifestyle programme” that consisted of mental and physical exercise, stress reduction, and a healthy diet.
Among other improvements, participants were found to perform better in tests of verbal fluency than people not following the lifestyle programme. Professor Gary Small of the University of California, Los Angeles, says future research will assess the individual effects of each lifestyle strategy to try to establish “the optimal combination”.
The results of a recent review of studies on exercise and its effect on brain functioning in human and animal populations also suggest that fitness training – an increased level of exercise – may improve some mental processes even more than moderate activity. "Our review of the last 40 years of research does offer evidence that physical exercise can have a positive influence on cognitive and brain functions in older animal and human subjects," said lead author Arthur F Kramer.
Dr Kramer and his colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found "a significant relationship" between physical activity and later cognitive function and decreased occurrence of dementia. Several studies that examined men and women over the age of 65 concluded that those who exercised for at least 15-30 minutes at a time, three times a week, were less likely to develop Alzheimer's – even if they were genetically predisposed to the disease.
For example, one four-year study looking at the relationship between physical activity and cognition and brain function in people aged 62-70 showed that those who continued to work and retirees who exercised “showed sustained levels of cerebral blood flow and superior performance on general measures of cognition,” compared with a group of inactive retirees, added Dr Kramer.
Tips to increase daily physical activity
You don't have to join a gym to get fit, although gym membership is a popular choice for many. According to NHS Direct, a brisk 30-minute walk five times a week will provide "some of the most important health benefits of a much more dedicated and structured exercise routine". It recommends choosing activities that you enjoy and that you can do on most days of the week, such as:
- A brisk walk (not just a stroll)
- Slow cycling (not enough to get out of breath)
- A leisurely swim
- Digging the garden
- Low-impact aerobics
- Playing tennis
The calorie calculator on the Food Standards Agency's website provides an idea of the different amounts of energy used up when you undertake certain activities. For example, 30 minutes cycling will burn off 186 calories, 30 minutes gardening 159, 20 minutes playing squash 204 and 20 minutes cleaning windows 56.
Other tips for incorporating more exercise into daily routines include taking the stairs instead of the lift or escalator; getting off the bus a stop or two earlier and walking the rest of the way; participating in team activities, such as football or cricket, to help maintain levels of motivation and enjoyment; taking a walk at lunchtime, rather than eating a sandwich at your desk; and joining or a local yoga, dance or swimming class.
Food Standards Agency calorie calculator
Department of Health
American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry
Walking the Way to Health