Deep Dive #2

Should we really be trying to get everyone to do the recommended amounts of physical activity?

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Surface skim

The Chief Medical Officers’ new Physical Activity Guidelines (2019)15 reflect what is necessary to achieve the optimal health benefits, but the targets may seem unachievable to those who are very inactive. The guidelines recognise that although more is better, some activity is still good and it only takes a small increase in activity to deliver significant benefits to the least active. People should be encouraged to ‘start their journey’ towards physical activity by making small changes. Even sitting less and moving more has measurable benefits.

Deep Dive

How much physical activity do people currently do?

Only 66% of men and 58% of women in England say they do the recommended amount of physical activity16. Even this may be an overestimate when compared to actual activity levels measured using activity trackers17. 27% of adults do less than 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity weekly and are classified as ‘inactive’18 People also sit a lot. Men in the UK spend an average of 78 days a year sitting during the day; for women, it’s 74 days a year19. Activity trackers show that office workers spend up to 71% of their working day sitting down, and those who are most inactive at work are also the most inactive out of working hours20.

Are the recommended amounts of physical activity realistic?

The UK Chief Medical Officers published new Physical Activity Guidelines for different age groups and life-stages in September 201915. These are what current evidence suggests are necessary to achieve optimal health benefits. In that sense they are realistic, and arguably the goal should be for everyone to achieve these targets. For adults, that would involve being physically active every day, accumulating 2 ½ hours of moderate-intensity activity or shorter periods of vigorous and/or very vigorous activity each week, and doing strength-building activities at least twice weekly, plus balance exercises. However, current activity levels suggest that for many, these targets are likely to be so far away as to seem impossible.

Are there any benefits from lower levels of physical activity?

The evidence is clear that although more exercise is better, any physical activity is good. The many benefits can start at even the lowest levels.15 The new UK guidelines are pragmatic and recommend that all individuals should be encouraged to ‘start their journey’ to a more active life by doing what they can and making small changes such as getting off the bus a stop early and walking the rest of the way. In fact, the greatest risk reductions are experienced by the most unfit when they increase their activity by only a small amount21.

Sit less, move more

Even just replacing 1 hour of sitting a day with low-level activity like household chores, gardening, mowing the lawn, or walking, can reduce mortality by 30%.22 Interventions that focus on being more active, even just breaking up sitting time, especially among older people and office workers, have been shown to be effective at reducing health risks23, 24. Research shows that there are a number of strategies incorporating self-monitoring/prompting technologies which both employers and employees think are realistic ways to help them sit less25, 26. It is possible to reduce sitting time even in challenging environments like call centres where employees are typically very desk-bound if programmes are carefully designed27.

Case studies

A new online tool to help older adults sit less and move more

Max Western from the University of Bath is developing methods for engaging older adults to use new physical activity technologies. His research explores how these can be used to reduce sitting time and encourage daily activity. It highlights the need to engage with target users in both the design and evaluation of technology to make it usable and relevant to them. Watch the project video: A new online tool to help older adults sit less and move more

Worktivity for a more active workforce

Aoife Stephenson from Ulster University has developed the Worktivity app which sends hourly reminders to stand up or move in addition to showing factual information related to the benefits of being active within the office environment. The app was shown to be effective in reducing sitting time and increasing standing time amongst office workers aged 18 to 65 years old25.

Rise and recharge!

Melitta McNarry and Kelly Mackintosh from Swansea University are testing the ‘Rise and Recharge!’ app that helps people monitor their sitting time and break it up with short periods of activity. They aim to discover what the crucial ingredients are that determine whether people actually use the app and respond to the prompts to stand up and move more, to try to make it more helpful and more effective for more people. Watch the project video: Rise and Recharge! The app to get you sitting less and moving more


You may also be interested in:

Deep Dive #1: What really motivates people to be more active?

Deep Dive #3: Are technology-enabled physical activity programmes suitable for older people? Surely most older people don’t really use technology?

Deep Dive #4: Should we just give everyone an activity tracker? Would that do the trick?

Deep Dive #5: Aren’t we all addicted to our phones? Shouldn’t we be using technology less, not more?