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The benefits of physical activity.

One of the basic but most valuable ingredients of a healthy lifestyle is physical activity. This can be sports, home exercises, outdoor activities, work related, … there are lots of ways to experience the health benefits of this essential bodily need. In this article we will lay out the basic concepts related to physical activity.

Physical activity is the movement of our body, produced by our muscles, for which our body uses a certain amount of energy. Engaging in physical activity on a regular basis offers benefits for both our bodily and mental health and it reduces the risks of a wide variety of illnesses. However, these benefits do not come for free; you have to move your bum frequently and at the right intensity to get the minimum stimulation your body needs. 

WHO’s minimum recommendations for physical activity:

The World Health Organisation recommends for adults of 18 years and older a minimum of 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity or at least 75 to 150 minutes of training at vigorous intensity, or a combination of both, for optimal health benefits. Muscle strengthening should be part of this training at least two days a week. More so, they recommend to reduce the time of being sedentary and replace it with any form of bodily movement, as this will result in further decreasing the health risks. 

These recommendations are valid for both healthy people as for people living with chronic diseases and disabilities, considering that the type of physical activity should always be adapted to the needs and possibilities of the person.

You have no idea what moderate-intensity and vigorous-intensity means? Imagine you are going on a walk with a friend and while you are walking, you can have a normal conversation with your walking buddy. But then he or she asks you to sing your favourite song:

  • Option 1: You can sing it without any problem.
  • Option 2: It really sounds awful, and not because of your voice, because normally you sing like a nightingale  

If you’re choosing option one, you’re not walking fast enough . Moderate-intensity means you can talk but not sing, vigorous-intensity means you cannot have a normal conversation, you can only say some individual words.

Some examples of moderate-intensity activities are brisk walking (4-5 km/h), cycling (15-20 km/h) and aquagym. Jogging, riding your bike in the hills or playing a game of football are considered vigorous-intensity activities.

Why are these guidelines important?

In order to have your body to adapt, or in other words, if you want your training to be effective, you must respect some principles. These can be summarised in the acronym FITT:

FREQUENCY

Refers to how often you train/exercise/do physical activity. Generally it is considered that you need a minimum of three days of training a week. Also, don’t forget that some resting days are important for muscle recovery.

INTENSITY

Refers to the experienced difficulty of the activity. Remember the being able to talk but not sing?

TIME

This is the duration of the exercise. Moderate activity should be at least 30 minutes, while if you perform higher intensity activities, 15 to 20 minutes may be enough as a minimum.

TYPE

The kind of activity you do will determine the result, e.g. running for improving your cardiovascular system and lifting weights to make your muscles stronger.

But!!! Let’s not forget, maybe the most important principle is that you have to find something that you like. Finding an enjoyable way to do a physical activity is probably what makes you adhere to the FITT principles, isn’t it?

Most countries use the WHO recommendations as the basis for their national guidelines, however, some specialists argue that they may not be realistic for an important group of people. They say that any amount of physical activity should be considered beneficial and that people should not be discouraged if they don’t reach the WHO recommendations. 

As healthcare professionals, we completely agree with that statement. Some people will feel overwhelmed if they read those numbers, but you really don’t have to be. You can set these recommendations as a goal to strive for, but how fast you get there, depends on your initial level of fitness, the presence of disease, injury or disabilities, the time available in your agenda etc. It’s all about planning and preparation, that’s why people like us are there to help you out . 

Let’s talk about the benefits

Not moving enough is a major risk factor in our modern time, lifestyle-related diseases like cardiovascular conditions, stroke, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer and psychological distress. It increases the risk of death by 20 to 30%.

Engaging regularly in physical activity helps to:

  • Make your heart and vascular system stronger 
  • Make your bones stronger 
  • Improve your balance 
  • Maintain a healthy bodyweight 
  • Improve your overall physical fitness 
  • Relax your mind 
  • Improve your sleep quality 
  • Make your organs function better 

So as you can see, getting your body moving is one of nature’s best and free (depends on you ) medicines. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are, your body is always able to adapt and let you live a healthier and more comfortable life.

I hope you enjoyed it!

Tom Van Biesen, Registered Physiotherapist.

References:

https://www.who.int

Warburton & Bredin, (2017). Health benefits of physical activity. Current Opinion in Cardiology, 32(5), 541–556.

Burnet et al., How fitting is F.I.T.T.?: A perspective on a transition from the sole use of frequency, intensity, time, and type in exercise prescription. Physiol Behav. 2019 Feb 1;199:33-34.