British attitudes to exercise show misleading guidelines 'should be changed'

October 09, 2007

British adults now believe that moderate activity is more beneficial than vigorous exercise, according to new research by the University of Exeter and Brunel University. Although most large studies show that the greatest health benefits are derived from regular participation in vigorous activities, such as jogging and competitive sports, 56% of men and 71% of women now believe moderate activities, like walking, are most beneficial. The first study to investigate attitudes to moderate and vigorous activity since Government physical activity guidelines changed in the mid 1990s, this research is now published in Preventive Medicine.

Traditionally, adults were encouraged to take part in 20 to 60 minutes of vigorous exercise three or more times a week. In 1990, research showed around 90% of British adults believed vigorous exercise was important in maintaining and improving health and fitness. Since 1995 the Department of Health has instead promoted 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week, which can be achieved through everyday activities such as walking, housework or gardening. The research team believes this shift in attitudes is threatening the nation's health and is calling for evidence-based guidelines.

Dr Gary O'Donovan, exercise physiologist from the University of Exeter and lead author on the paper said: "Time and time again, the largest and most robust studies have shown that vigorously active individuals live longer and enjoy a better quality of life than moderately active individuals and couch potatoes. It's extremely worrying that British adults now believe that a brief stroll and a bit of gardening is enough to make them fit and healthy. The challenge now is to amend Britain's physical activity guidelines so that they emphasise the role vigorous activity plays in fighting obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease."

In addition to halving the risk of diabetes and heart disease, recent studies have shown that regular exercise offers protection from certain cancers. The research team believes that 30 minutes of brisk walking per day might be sufficient to reduce the risk of breast cancer, but regular participation in vigorous exercise is probably necessary to reduce the risk of prostate and colorectal cancers.

The researchers argue that in order to enable the public to make fully-informed decisions about exercise, policymakers should describe the dose-response relationship between physical activity and health. Dr. O'Donovan explains that: "Brisk walking offers some health benefits, but jogging, running and other vigorous activities offer maximal protection from disease."

Dr. O'Donovan adds: "Sedentary adults should complete a six- to twelve-week programme of moderate exercise before beginning a programme of vigorous exercise. Men older than 45 and women older than 55 should consult their GP before taking up vigorous exercise."

The survey, which was funded by the Sports Marketing Research Trust, shows for the first time, the extent of awareness of the current Government exercise recommendations: 78% of men and 84% of women interviewed were aware that moderate activity is currently recommended for adults.

Examples of moderate activities in healthy adultsExamples of vigorous activities in healthy adults
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University of Exeter

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