4 Good Reasons to be Active

By Dr JULIET MCGRATTAN

We all know that doing exercise is good for us. Despite this, the Health Survey for England in 2016 tells us that 34% of men and 42% of women aren’t doing enough activity for good health. Why is it that exercise is so often seen as a chore and something that ends up on the bottom of our to do list?

Here are four great reasons to be active:

1. Better health. This might sound obvious but the power that exercise has to improve health is often hugely underestimated. Did you know that if you are regularly active throughout your life, you can reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 35 to 40%, your risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 20 to 30% and your risk of bowel cancer by as much as 50%? This means that we have the power to shape our own future health. When we’re young we tend not to think about these things but as we age, health issues do become more of a concern and it’s never too late to start becoming active and reaping some of these benefits.

2. Feel good factor. If you speak to someone who was previously inactive and became active, then you’ll find that one of the reasons they would never go back to a more sedentary lifestyle is simply because they feel so much better. You might think that you would feel more tired but your energy levels actually increase when you lead an active life. You sleep better, your concentration improves and you feel calmer. Stress and low mood are a common problem today and we know that exercise is a powerful tool for maintaining and improving mental health. You can expect a 20 to 30% reduction in your risk of depression if you keep active. Exercise helps both our physical and mental health.

3. Opens your world. Exercise can open up a whole new range of experiences and opportunities. From meeting new people and making new friends to exploring new areas and perhaps even travelling far and wide. You just never know where it will take you. Discovering a new path in your neighbourhood or feeling more a part of your local community can change how you feel about where you live. Learning what your body is capable of can change how you feel about yourself. Exercise can improve your self-esteem and self-confidence which then has a knock on effect to other areas of your life such as making you feel more empowered to take on challenges at work or within your family.

4. It’s fun. You might have grown up associating exercise with competitive sport at school and if you didn’t enjoy it then it can put you off for life. But there’s way more to exercise than feeling exhausted on a cross country run! Find something you like. If you want a new habit for life then it has to be enjoyable. Think back to when you were younger, what did you used to love doing? Chances are that if you can find a way to do it now, then you’ll love it all over again. Was it dance? Find an adult dance class or just crank up the stereo and dance around the kitchen. Was it football? There might be a local team, a walking football league or the opportunity to get active by coaching youngsters. Try new things and feel the boost that learning a new skill gives you. Above all, have fun with exercise.

Picture courtesy of PHE

These are four great reasons to be active and have you noticed they don’t include losing weight? We now understand that whilst some of the benefits of exercise are about any weight loss that it may cause in those who are overweight, lots of the benefits are entirely separate to what the scales tell you. You might not see your weight fall as you become more active but this doesn’t matter; it doesn’t mean it isn’t making you healthier. Exercise works by making you healthier from the inside out. It helps to reduce your visceral fat, this is the harmful fat around your internal organs. Visceral fat causes a slow inflammation in the body which we now know is one of the causes of the major diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cancer and depression. Exercise will work on this fat before it works on our spare tyres round our middle!

The other thing to bear in mind is that although each week we are aiming for 150 minutes of exercise that makes us feel out of breath, what we do the rest of the time is important too. Reducing how long we spend sitting is hugely important. We were designed to move and by breaking up our sitting time and moving around for a couple of minutes every half an hour, we can help to prevent the cells of our body being damaged by unspent energy.

So, keep moving, improve your health, feel better, open your world and above all, have FUN!

Dr Juliet McGrattan is a GP , mother and author of Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide to Health. She works as a Clinical Champion for Physical Activity with PHE in the north-west of England and with 261 Fearless, a global women’s running network. 

Find out more about Juliet and follow her blog here.

Featured image supplied by Gratisography

Get Strong, Stay Strong

Most people appreciate that being active is important for our health and wellbeing.

Many are also aware that to really get the health benefits from cardiovascular exercise we need to be getting our heart rate and respiratory rate up to a moderate or vigorous intensity for at least 150 or 75 minutes a week respectively.

What many people are unfamiliar with, however, is the importance of balance and strength training from cradle to grave.

Evidence suggests that there are strong associations in middle and older age between poor balance, poor strength or poor physical function and mortality, and that lower strength in late adolescence and early adulthood link with increased vascular risk in later life.

Given that surveys in the UK report that 69% of men and 76% of women are not meeting the strength and balance guidelines (two or more sessions a week), this has implications for us all.


How does strength and balance change across the lifecourse?

Muscle strength, bone strength and balance ability increase in childhood and peak in early adulthood. A decline in muscle mass is seen from around the age of 30 years but this is more notable from the age of 50 years (0.5-1% loss a year) and after 75 years (2-4%).

Low muscle strength, also known as sarcopenia, is linked with frailty. It is more common in older adults but can occur at any point due to lifestyle factors such as sedentary behaviour.

Studies have shown that there is approximately a 50% decline in muscle strength between 25 to 85 years. This loss of muscle strength is seen as the primary limiting factor for functional independence. We need that muscle strength to be able to get out of a chair, climb stairs and to have the capacity to maintain balance when we trip.

Women statistically have less muscle mass than men and so reach the fall threshold earlier with age related loss. Evidence shows, for example, that 25% of women are at risk of not being able to get up from a low chair independently between 70-74 years compared to 7% of men.

Similarly, obese individuals will have a lower muscle strength in lower limbs compared to body weight which impacts negatively on performance too.

Bone density peaks around 20-40 years. After that there is progressive loss, which is accelerated in women after the menopause. So building that bone strength when we are young is important, as is engaging in activities that maintain bone strength as we age.

Not surprisingly, balance also declines as we age and is often affected by many other factors such as obesity, reduced sensitivity of skin receptors, reduced cognitive processing, visual impairment, joint problems, pain, poor coordination and vestibular dysfunction.


When should we focus on strength and balance activity?

Research has shown that there are specific times in the life cycle where strength and balance activities would be most beneficial to health.

  • 18-24 years to maximise bone and muscle strength gains
  • 40-50 years to maintain strength and reduce that downward spiral
  • Over 65 years to preserve balance and maintain strength and independence

Of note, there are certain transition periods in life which have been identified as being important too. These transitions represent times in our lives when we might become less active and / or more sedentary. They include pregnancy, the menopause, following a diagnosis or medical condition ie stroke, on retirement, becoming a carer or following a period of hospitalisation or prolonged illness.

These periods can result in accelerated loss of strength, balance and cardiovascular fitness, and thus represent optimum times to instigate strength and balance training. Women might experience more of these life changes than men (pregnancy, menopause and becoming a carer) on top of the already statistically lower muscle mass.

What should we be doing and which activities help the best?

According to a review by Public Health England and the Centre for Ageing Better, we should be doing strength activities twice a week which include “high intensity resistance training, some impact exercise (running , jumping, skipping etc) and balance training.

The table below shows the positive impact of different types of activity on muscle, bone and strength outcomes.

Those with established osteoporosis, history of vertebral fractures or frailer older people with or without significant cognitive impairment need to seek advice from a physiotherapist as there are some activities that they should avoid and some that they should only do supervised.

Type of Sport, Physical Activity or ExerciseImprovement in Muscle FunctionImprovement in Bone HealthImprovement in Balance
RunningXXXX
Resistance TrainingXXXXXXXX
Circuit trainingXXXXXXXX
Ball GamesXXXXXXXX
Racquet SportsXXXXXXXX
Yoga, Tai ChiXXX
DanceXXXX
WalkingXX0
Nordic walkingXXNKXX
CyclingXXX

XXX= Strong Effect; XX=Medium Effect; X= Low; 0= no effect; NK=Not Known

Assessment of the positive impact of different types of sport, physical activity or exercise on muscle, bone and balance outcomes (adapted from Heinonen & Kujala in Kokko et al 2011)

There are clearly many other activities not listed on the table such as swimming, skiing/snowboarding, hillwalking, climbing and martial arts other than tai chi that will improve muscle and bone strength and balance.

The important aspect, according to Health Survey England is that the effort of the activity is enough that “the muscles feel some tension, shake or feel warm” and ideally for this to be sustained for bouts of at least 10 minutes. With this is mind, many everyday activities could fall into strength and balance work such as climbing stairs, gardening and DIY. They don’t necessarily have to be planned extras. So this makes it easier when thinking of how we can integrate it into our ever busy schedules.


As you can see, getting strong and staying strong is important across the lifecourse and especially at particular periods of change, yet many of us are not doing enough. So how could we tackle this and start doing more?

First, we need to consider where we are currently and where we would like to be. We then need to break down our goals into realistic and achievable steps. #OneChange is a fun way to do this. It is about nudging or coaxing us to change our behaviour or to start a new healthy habit. An effective and simple way to do this can be to anchor the new habit with a current activity such as boiling the kettle or brushing your teeth.

So to kickstart this, my #OneChange is to stand on one leg whilst brushing my teeth.

What is yours?!

References

  1. “How do muscle and bone strengthening activities (MBSBA) vary across the lifecourse and are there particular ages where MBSBA are most important?” Dawn Skelton, Alexandra Manroeidi Journal of Frailty, Sarcopenia and Falls / June 2018 / Vol 3 No.2 / 74-84
  2. “What types of physical activities are effective in developing muscle and bone strength and balance? Charlie Foster, Miranda E.G Armstrong. Journal of Frailty, Sarcopenia and Falls / June 2018 / Vol 3 No 2 / 58-65
  3. Muscle and bone strengthening and balance activities for general health benefits for adults and older adults. Summary of a rapid evidence review of the UK Chief Medical Officer’s update of the physical activity guidelines. PHE and Centre for Ageing Better. July 2018.
  4. Health Survey for England 2016. Physical Activity in adults. NHS Digital.