Most Australians aren’t getting enough physical activity, and now we need to sit less too.
The recommended thirty minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each day isn’t enough movement to help you lose weight and maximise your health. Why? Because it doesn’t compensate for all the time you spend sedentary throughout the rest of the day. Think about it! The average Australian spends 13 hours a week watching television and 6 hours sedentary commuting to and from work. One third of Aussies spend at least three-quarters of their time at work sitting, and on average we sleep 7-7.5 hours each night. You don’t have to be a mathematician to realise the numbers don’t add up. Yet up until recently, Australian Physical Activity Guidelines for adults released in 1999 said 30 minutes of physical activity was enough.
Thirty minutes was the number everyone knew, but for years I have felt this wasn’t enough to ensure clients achieved their goals – whether they were to lose weight, maintain weight or improve overall health and wellbeing. Instead, I have prescribed a minimum of 60 minutes of physical activity each day, which was inline with the American College of Sports Medicine’s (ACSM) exercise guidelines. These guidelines focus on complete physical fitness – developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, and improving flexibility in healthy adults. Not only do they incorporate three important areas of fitness, they also give specifics about frequency, duration, intensity and type. The Australian guidelines were far too basic…..well until recently.
New Australian Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines
In 2012, a group of consultants were commissioned by the Department of Health and Ageing in Australia to undertake a review of the evidence between physical activity and health outcome indicators, and to develop a set of evidence-based physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines for adults (18-64 years olds).
For the first time, the new physical activity guidelines urged Australians to limit sedentary behaviour (even if they were “physically active”) by breaking up long periods of sitting as often as possible. Research associates sedentary behaviour with poorer health outcomes, including an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. With so many opportunities in our lifestyles to sit, we therefore need to find opportunities to move as much as we can.
Along with sitting less, the guidelines also say we also need to start moving more. Initially it doesn’t matter how much physical activity we do – any is better than nothing. So if you are currently not doing any physical activity, start by doing some and gradually build up to the recommended amount. As for the recommended amount, 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity (75 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity) will give you improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol, heart health and muscle and bone strength, but is not enough to assist with weight loss or reduce the risk of some cancers. The new guidelines state that if you are looking to prevent weight gain, you need to accumulate at least 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate intensity physical activity, or 150 minutes of vigorous, or equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous activities each week (10 minutes of vigorous is equal to 20 minutes of moderate).
The guidelines also recommend including at least two muscle-strengthening activities like lifting free weights or using resistance machines each week. Resistance training activities are important for metabolic, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health (including the prevention of falls), and for maintaining functional status and ability to perform activities of daily living. All activity should be spread over the week. In other words, we should be active on most, preferably all days of the week. This frequency of exercise is likely to provide increased metabolic benefits. The new guidelines also clarify that these activity recommendations are in “addition to the activities of daily living that would be expected in the lives of most Australians e.g. shopping, washing up, cooking, childcare and personal care”. In other words, walking while you shop does not contribute to your weekly physical activity needs. In other words, in order to contribute to the 150-300 minutes of physical activity needed each week, you really need to be a schedule your physical activity into your week and it needs to use one or more large muscle groups.
Where to from here
These new physical activity guidelines highlight what the research has been saying for the last couple of decades – 30 minutes of physical activity each day is not enough to prevent weight gain and reduce some cancers. While it may offer benefits for blood pressure, cholesterol, heart health and muscle and bone strength, these benefits can be negated if we spend the rest of our day sedentary. However, with less than half of Australians currently including 30 minutes of physical activity each day, it remains unanswered as to how we are going to get the public to achieve twice this. This is something I know first hand. Recommending 60 minutes of physical activity a day is often met with “I don’t have time for that’ or “there isn’t any way I can fit that in”. We need to stop hiding behind our perception of what we think is enough physical activity to maintain health and achieve the results we want, and start realising that our inactivity is killing us. If associating physical activity with weight loss or reduced cancer risk doesn’t get you moving more, that’s fine – why not up the movement because it enhances your mood, boosts your energy levels, improves your sleep and improves your body’s overall function? If these aren’t good enough reasons to find the time to move, I don’t know what is.
How can you move more and sit less?