Stand up and be counted

Posted: 02 April 2014

Being more active could not only help control weight and prevent Type 2 Diabetes (T2D) and other chronic health problems, but it could also make massive savings to global health budgets, according to Professor Greg Whyte of the Research Institute for Sport & Exercise Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University.

Shockingly, physical inactivity accounts for around 16% of all deaths in men and women, Prof Whyte told the International Sweeteners Association conference in Brussels last week (02-04-14).

Only around 40% of men and 30% of women in the UK meet internationally agreed minimum recommendations for physical activity, said Prof Whyte “but when their estimates are measured objectively by others only 5% of people meet the target.”

The World Health Organisation recommends 30 minutes of moderate activity a day for adults, and one hour for children. “This adds up to 150 minutes a week, but it can be broken up into 10 minute units,” said Prof Whyte if that suits your lifestyle better.

More than 150 minutes doesn’t give much more benefit, ”but any activity, no matter how small, is better than sitting still.”

Prof Whyte criticised governments for spending proportionately small amounts on health education about the benefits of physical activity compared with health issues affecting smaller numbers of people with less economic impact on the economy.

“Physical activity has the least amount spent on it yet inactivity carries the same risk for heart disease as smoking.” Its importance should therefore be highlighted from an early age. “School performance league tables should include levels of physical activity alongside exam results,” suggested Prof Whyte “so that people can see that being more physically active improves exam performance".

“Research shows a dose-response curve to being active – the more you exercise the less likely you are to develop a chronic disease. It also counters depression and, unlike some magic bullet pharmaceuticals, has no side-effects.”

“For everyone small changes in physical activity can have a big impact on reducing disease risk, for example: Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, stroke, breast and colon cancer, high blood pressure, raised blood fats, metabolic syndrome and substance abuse.”

Focussing on fitness and reduced health risks rather than size and weight can be a better approach for obese and overweight people, said Prof Whyte. “A lot of overweight or obese people suffer social seclusion and depression and physical activity has been shown to bring them psychological and sociological improvements.”

The best approach to being more active is a combination of aerobic (walking, swimming and other activities that lead to breathlessness) and resistance (weight) training which improves glucose uptake by the muscles, explained Prof Whyte.

“Both types of activity increase fat burning and metabolic weight,” explained Whyte. Trials in the workplace have shown that four sessions of walking for 30 minutes a week over two months brings all round health improvements.”

And for the obese the idea that it is better to be fat and fit than normal weight and unfit holds some truth. “Even for the very obese, with a BMI over 35, two and a half hours of moderate activity a week increases life expectancy above that of sedentary normal-weight people,” said Prof Whyte.“The goal for everyone is to identify which type of exercise suits you best and to stick to it,” he concluded.

Janette Marshall, Nutrition and Health Journalist