The human body is designed to move; being physically active can offer a range of physical, social and psychological benefits. New guidelines have been released to help Europeans achieve a better quality of life by being more active.
Defining physical activity
Physical activity is “any bodily movement associated with muscular contraction that increases energy expenditure above resting levels.”1 It is a major factor associated with health and quality of life and includes many sports and leisure activities (i.e. exercise), but also day-to-day activities such as brisk walking, housework and physically demanding jobs such as building.
Benefits of an active lifestyle
There are many health benefits of physical activity for all age groups, including1:
• Reduced risk of heart disease
• Weight management
• Healthy bones
• Lower risk of depression
Factors influencing activity
Physical activity is not simply dictated by a person’s desire to be active, it can be largely affected by their environment. In the community, urban planning can play an important role in helping people to feel able to cycle or walk to work and to feel safe from risk of crime or accidents. In the workplace, shower facilities can be provided so that cycling to work is possible.
Guidelines in Europe and America
Total physical activity seems to have been decreasing in the past few decades (although this is not proven), mainly as a result of a range of innovations making life easier. Around 40-60% of the European Union (EU) population lead a sedentary lifestyle.1
In 2008, new guidelines on health-enhancing physical activity were drawn up for Americans and EU citizens (Table 1).1,2 In the American guidelines, much detail was given prescribing the minimum amount of physical activity that should be reached for different population groups. The EU guidelines were broadly based on guidelines published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) which are far less prescriptive.3
Both EU and American guidelines agree that some activity is better than none in terms of health benefits. The EU guidelines are mostly focussed on recommending policy actions at community and national levels to facilitate people becoming more physically active. This cross-sectoral approach includes sport, health, education, transport, environment, urban planning, public safety, work and services for senior citizens. For example, health insurance providers could promote physical activity by offering financial incentives to clients who can demonstrate that they are active.
Practical steps to becoming more active
It is essential that at local and national levels, suitable environments are created that encourage more physical activity, but it is at the individual level where action also needs to be taken. For those not used to being physically active, the main message is to build up gradually to a level that is appropriate and can be maintained in the long term.
A shop worker may start with something as simple as getting off the bus a stop earlier than usual and walking the additional distance, building up the distance over a period of time and using a pedometer to monitor progress. A housewife could choose to park further away from the grocery store and carry shopping bags the extra distance. A manager may be able to build working relationships by suggesting a meeting with a colleague after a game of squash or to discuss new ideas whilst taking a walk away from the office. For all people, setting goals, perhaps with the help of a health professional who can advise on what is appropriate is a useful first step.
Table 1. US and EU recommendations on physical activity for adults
EU recommendations (based on WHO3)
At least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity
75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity
A minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity 5 days per week
At least 20 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity 3 days per week
Activity should be in episodes of at least 10 minutes and spread throughout
Activity can be accumulated in blocks of at least 10 minutes
For additional benefit adults should increase their aerobic activity to 300 minutes per week of moderate intensity or 150 minutes of vigorous intensity
Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or high intensity and involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days
Activities to increase muscular strength and endurance should be added 2 to 3 days per week
- EU Working Group “Sport and Health” (2008) EU Physical Activity Guidelines. Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/sport/what-we-do/doc/health/pa_guidelines_4th_consolidated_draft_en.pdf
- U.S Department of Health and Human Services (2008). 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Available at: http://www.health.gov/PAGuidelines/pdf/paguide.pdf
- WHO (2002). Move for Health. Available at: http://www.who.int/moveforhealth/en