More and more research is pointing to the fact that regular physical activity contributes to good health and reduces our risk of chronic diseases. Yet the physical activity levels of many Australians are less than optimal; a growing trend attributed to our increasingly sedentary habits, both at work and in our leisure time.
This article examines the Government’s Physical and Sedentary Guidelines that have been compiled to try and address the problem, looks at the evidence behind them and what we can do to become more active in our daily lives.
Physical and sedentary behaviour
The Guidelines are based on two terms, which need to be defined. These are ‘physical activity’ and ‘sedentary behaviour’:
- Physical activity is any kind of activity that gets your body moving and increases your breathing and pulse rate.
- Sedentary behaviour is the practice of sitting or lying down, except when you are sleeping.
Even if you do enough physical activity during the day, you can still be considered sedentary if you spend long periods sitting or lying as well. Such people are often referred to as ‘active couch potatoes’.
Sedentary behaviour may not be our fault either. Many of us are required to sit for long periods in front of a computer at work, sit in our cars while commuting and sit for hours on aeroplanes while travelling.
What are the Guidelines?
The Australian Government’s Physical and Sedentary Guidelines are designed to specifically address sedentary behaviour and the need for more physical activity.
They were compiled by the Population Health Division of the Department of Health as part of its ongoing commitment to improve the health of Australians by reducing preventable mortality and morbidity caused by chronic disease.
Guidelines by age group
The Guidelines are broken down into physical activity and sedentary behaviour recommendations for each age group. Recommendations for physical activity include:
- Birth to twelve months – Encourage supervised floor play in safe environments.
- 1-5 years – At least three hours of physical activity a day, spread across the day.
- 5-17 years – At least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day, including muscle and bone strengthening activities at least three days a week.
- 18-64 years - Between 150 and 300 minutes of moderate activity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity a week, or a combination of both.
- 65 years and older – at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most or all days, including activities that improve fitness, strength, balance and flexibility.
Recommendations for sedentary behaviour include:
- Birth to 2 years – No time should be spent watching TV or DVDs or using electronic media.
- 2-5 years - Less than one hour a day watching TV and DVDs or using electronic media.
- 5-17 years – No more than two hours a day watching TV and DVDs or using electronic media.
- 18 years and older – as little time spent sitting as possible, interspersed with plenty of breaks.
The evidence supporting the link between physical activity and health is growing all the time, and the Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines are based on evidence such as:
- Studies that clearly show a decreasing risk of cardiovascular disease with an increasing level of activity.
- Studies linking 60 to 90 minutes of moderate activity or 30 to 60 minutes of vigorous activity on most days with a 20% reduction in the risk of breast cancer and a 30% reduction in the risk of colon cancer.
- Ongoing research that indicates a relationship between sedentary behaviour and a reduction in the enzyme activity involved in processing the body’s fats and sugars.
- Statistics showing that physical activity is the main cause of 21% to 25% of breast and colon cancers, 27% of diabetes and 30% of heart disease cases.
- Statistics revealing that almost 70% of Australian adults are sedentary or have low levels of physical activity.
Ways to be more active
Given that the Guidelines recommend between 150 and 300 minutes of moderate activity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity a week for most adults, the question is, how do we achieve these goals?
Many people do not wish to or are not able to visit a gym, so getting the required amount of exercise really comes down to fitting it into our daily routine.
And indeed, the latest advice is to look at exercise less as a structured activity and more as a series of habits that can be incorporated into our daily lives. Here are some simple ways to do this.
- Use a standing desk at work, where activities such as using a computer and talking on the phone can be done in an upright position.
- Walk wherever possible. Walk to the shops rather than driving, park further away in the car park and take the stairs rather than the elevator (5 minutes climbing burns 150 calories).
- Use a shopping basket instead of a trolley. This will exercise your muscles on a regular basis, particularly if you are a daily rather than weekly shopper.
- Exercise while watching TV or talking on the phone. Simply walking around instead of sitting will contribute to your physical activity quota.
- Take regular breaks from your desk. If you spend long hours in front of a computer, set an alarm or install an app to remind you it’s time to take a break and then get up and move around.
Adhering to the Australian Government’s Physical and Sedentary Guidelines doesn’t have to be a chore. Physical activity offers a range of opportunities for socialising with friends and family and getting out into the great outdoors.
It not only improves our health, but makes us feel good as well, so we owe it to ourselves to give it a go. We’ve got nothing to lose but a few kilos and a great deal to gain by reducing our risk of chronic conditions such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
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