New physical activity guidelines were released early in the year but who is really meeting them? By Kirsten Braun
In February of this year the Department of Health released new physical activity guidelines for all Australians from birth to senior Australians. Of particular interest is a doubling of the recommended amount of physical activity for adults from 150 minutes per week to between 150 and 300 minutes. The increase recognises a concerning trend that many Australians are largely sedentary, increasing their risk of high blood pressure, cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.
What do the new guidelines recommend?
Physical activity for children of these ages should be encouraged from birth, particularly floor based play. Children aged 1-5 years should be physically active every day for at least three hours which can be spread throughout the day. Sitting in strollers, highchairs and car seats for long periods of time isn't recommended as it is not beneficial for children's health and development.
Children aged 5-12
These children should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity every day. Moderate intensity activities are those where the child can still speak easily while doing them (fast walking, riding a bike or scooter). Vigorous intensity activities are those that make children breathe harder and faster (running, chasing and organised sports like netball and soccer). On at least three days a week children should do activities that strengthen muscle and bone (activities like skipping, running, hopping, jumping, as well as dance, gymnastics, martial arts). Ideally children should engage in more than 60 minutes a day, up to several hours daily.
Children aged 13-17
The recommendations for children aged 13-17 are the same for those aged 5-12. Children of these ages should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity every day. Ideally they should, however, do up to several hours daily.
The recommendations for this age group are to accumulate 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity or 150 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity (or an equivalent combination of both) each week. This level of physical activity will provide benefits such as improved blood pressure, cholesterol, heart health and muscle and bone strength. Muscle strengthening activities should be incorporated on at least 2 days each week. To prevent weight gain or cancer, however, one would need to increase this level to 300 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity or 150 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity per week. The guidelines take into account those people who are currently largely sedentary by encouraging them to start some physical activity and to gradually build up to the recommendations.
Older Australians (65 years and older)
Older Australians should be active every day and accumulate at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity on most, preferably all days. Physical activities that incorporate fitness strength, balance and flexibility are ideal. If an older person has stopped physical activity they should start at a level that is manageable and build up to the recommended amount.
How much physical activity are we really getting?
Results from the last Australian Health Survey (2011-2012) suggest that when it comes to physical activity we are really missing the mark. Only one third of children and one in ten young people undertook the recommended amount of physical activity every day, (and this was based on the previous physical activity guidelines). Nearly 70% of Australian adults are either sedentary or have low levels of physical activity. Sedentary leisure activities (watching TV, using the computer and playing electronic games) took up just over 4 hours a day on average with almost 30% reporting more than 5 hours of sedentary leisure activity each day.
Why are we so sedentary?
The main reason people give for not participating in physical activity is a lack of time. While this is partly true as many people are more time poor these days, it is not the whole explanation. Although people say they have no time for physical activity they are finding time for sedentary activities like watching TV or using the computer. There must be, therefore, other impediments to exercising in addition to just time constraints. These might include a lack of childcare, safety fears (walking/running at night in unlit areas, stranger danger for children), cost (gym fees, sport membership fees) or medical problems (arthritis). One of the biggest impediments it seems, however, is simply a lack of motivation. Sedentary behaviour, coupled with poor diet and poor sleeping habits can leave us feeling tired. This creates a vicious cycle: we feel too tired and unmotivated to exercise and this very lack of physical activity leaves us feeling tired.
How do we get off the couch?
Incorporating more physical exercise into your life is the same as improving one's diet: the changes must be realistic, achievable and sustainable. People can start by looking at their current lifestyle to assess where and when they could add more physical activity. If there are impediments try and think of possible solutions rather than just dismiss the possibility altogether. For example, walking is virtually free (except for the purchase of supportive joggers) and maybe a partner or friend is willing to look after the children.
Tips for being more active
*Make it count.
While any exercise is beneficial, try and make the most of the time that you do take to exercise. For regular walkers, for example, this simply might mean picking up the pace or incorporating some short sprints, stair or hill climbing along the way. For gym goers it might mean changing the intensity on the treadmill or stationary bike or enrolling in a higher intensity gym class than usual.
*Choose the right activity for your personality and circumstances
This can play an important role in the success of an exercise program. Some people may be motivated by the social aspect of some activities and so joining a walking group or team sport is a good choice for them. Others, however, may crave some alone time and so walking by themselves or swimming laps might be a more successful activity.
*Incorporate exercise into your daily routine.
For many people getting up early in the morning to exercise or exercising after arriving home from work is difficult. A lack of motivation can mean that people prefer to stay in bed and get a bit of extra sleep or simply sit on the couch and relax in front of the television. Incorporating exercise as a way of getting to and from work is a great way of getting regular exercise. While it might mean having to leave early or getting home later, building physical activity into a daily routine is much more likely to be successful long term. For those who live too far away from work to walk or cycle, getting off the bus or train stop a few minutes earlier or choosing a car park further away can still contribute to the accumulated total of physical activity for the week.
*Lunch time workout
Going for a walk, swim or gym session in your lunch hour is another way of incorporating physical activity into your day. If your lunch hour doesn't stretch enough to fit in a proper workout still try for some activity. Walk further to buy your lunch or if you take lunch, walk to a nearby park to eat it.
We've all heard the 'take the stairs' rather than the elevator tip but the reason it is always mentioned is that it is a great example of how you can incorporate incidental exercise into your day. This might not work if your office is on the fortieth floor but you could still get out a few floors earlier. Other examples are walking to see a colleague rather than sending an email or walking to the local shops to buy the newspaper.
One of the most at risk groups for limited physical activity is new mums. The demands of a new baby mean that women often find it difficult to get back to the gym or their daily walk or run. Sleep deprivation can lead to tiredness which makes it more difficult to stay motivated about fitting in exercise. Add in medical issues like urinary incontinence and is it any wonder that new mums often miss out on exercise.
In the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women's Health it was found that 41% of the Younger cohort gained weight over time, with the average being 2.5 kilograms. However, for the women who became mothers in this time, this weight gain was more pronounced with an average of 5.4 kilograms. The study authors commented that "strategies for maintenance of healthy weight and prevention of further weight gain at this stage [motherhood] are now urgently required, if these Younger women are to avoid the early onset of weight-related health problems".
In response to this need, Women's Health developed a booklet called Looking After You: A New Mum's Guide to Feeling Great which focuses on healthy eating and exercise for new mums.
Last updated December 2014.
©Women's Health Queensland Wide Inc. This article was written by Kirsten Braun and reviewed by the Women's Health Queensland Wide editorial commitee. It was published in Health Journey 2014 Issue 3/4.
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