August 2017
Dr Adam Castricum
Sport and Exercise Physician
President, ACSEP

If exercise was a pill we would all be lining up for it.

Research shows that sitting around too much increases your risk of chronic disease which may well lead to an early death. In fact people who exercise regularly live on average 7 years longer than those who are physically inactive. It also shows that as little as 15 minutes of physical activity a day can reduce your risk significantly and improve your quality of life. Do more than this and the gift of exercise keeps giving. But how much is too much?

Currently, only just over a half of Australian adults meet the required weekly physical activity levels as determined by the National Physical Activity guidelines. Even more alarming is that just under 20% or 1 in 5 of our children meet these guidelines.

This is an alarming statistic because the research shows that being physically inactive has a greater contribution to dying than smokadiabesity - smoking, diabetes and obesity combined.

The National physical activity guidelines for adults recommend 150-300 minutes (2½ to 5 hours) of moderate intensity activities such as a brisk walk with your partner or your dog, cycling or dancing each week, or 75-150 (1¼ to 2½ hours) minutes of vigorous intensity activities such as running, hiking or competitive sports each week. This should be spread out over 5 days a week.

In children, the recommended amount is at least 1 hour of moderate to vigorous activity each day of the week.

During pregnancy, mums are recommended to at least 150 minutes of moderate activity each week, taking care not to bump the bump.

For the elderly, the recommendation is to accumulate at least 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days of the week.

For all age groups this should be balanced with 2-3 strength sessions like yoga, pilates or tai chi each week and there should be less sitting and more movement.

To reach moderate intensity activity, it is important to feel your breathing challenged, but still be able to hold a short conversation. This can be achieved with many common incidental activities we can perform on most days.

Incidental activities can be

  • walking in the park for your lunch;
  • walking up the stairs, instead of the lift;
  • walking the kids to school;
  • getting off public transport before your normal stop and walking the rest,
  • gardening,
  • mowing the lawn,
  • parking in the furthest car park from the shopping centre

The research shows that those who meet these recommended physical activity levels will have a 30-50% lower risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, mental illness, dementia and many cancers, including breast, colon and prostate cancers. Exercise is also recommended as a vital part of any treatment plan for these diseases and others including osteoarthritis, in terms of reducing pain and improving function.

So much so that the power of exercise on all these conditions is so strong, particularly on improving your mood, well-being and energy levels, that it really is the best buy for your short and long term health.

But how much is too much exercise?

If you are relatively inactive, returning from an injury or have a chronic disease it is important that you start slow and gradually increase your activity levels over a number of weeks to months. It is important that you always progress your activity keeping your pace challenging enough to hold a short conversation. Avoid jumping straight into it with 5 days in a row of long walks on hard roads, skipping, cross fit or jogging.

Certainly, the higher the intensity of the activity you do, the less time you need to complete it in to get the same health benefits. High Intensity Interval training (HIIT) has become popular recently and as little as 7 minutes of this 3 times a week for 12 weeks can give similar, if not better results for many values related to heart disease and diabetes as well as reducing body fat. However, it is important that you have good base fitness before starting these programs. If you have unstable heart disease, obesity, cancer or diabetes it is important you consult with your medical specialist including your Sport and Exercise Physician before starting any such high intensity activity program.

It is also important to remember that too much exercise can have no added health benefits above exercising for some, at moderate intensity for 2 hours every day or running more than 1 hour every day and may in fact tip you into injury and illness. The better conditioned you are to exercise, the better you can tolerate higher loads, but remember, exercising at 10 times the minimum requirement can increase your risk of dying so best not to overdo it!

Exercising beyond your body’s ability to recover may lead to tiredness, fatigue and sometimes persisting joint, muscle, tendon or bone pain. It is important that you not resume the same activity until this has resolved. It is common to have some body aches in the first 24 hours after exercise as your body adapts to new loads. Varying your daily activities between high impact (running, jumping) and low impact (swimming, cycling, walking, pilates) activities allows recovery and can reduce the risk of boredom with your exercise. Should your aches and pains not settle despite this, or you find exercise becomes a compulsion, it is best you consult your health professional or your Sport and Exercise Physician, where further expert opinion is required.

It is important to compliment any activity program with a comfortable pair of footwear, the appropriate clothing and strengthening exercises for all your body parts so that you are strong enough to cope with the loads you want to put through your body. A rest day each week and good sleep patterns are vital to allow the body to regenerate, recover and feel fresh for the day ahead.

Get up and move!

Finally, to stop us being a nation of couch potatoes, we must get up and move. The research shows that even as little as 15 minutes of brisk walking 5 days a week can reduce your risk of chronic disease by 15%. And remember the more you do, the greater the benefit. Just like diet and nutrition, education and good habits start in the home. So get up off the couch, get away from your desk, grab your nearest and dearest, get outdoors and spend at least 30 minutes a day having fun together. Then together we can be a happier, healthier nation.