How to do more and better physical activity

The Chief Medical Officer is pretty clear on what and how much physical activity we should be doing. But, this isn’t helpful for most people. It can seem unachievable, overwhelming, intimidating even. Getting started is difficult, never mind making it sustainable. We need to look at physical activity differently.

A friend of mine recently told me that she was struggling with exercise. She’s a working mum with an underlying health condition. She doesn’t have the time or energy to do all the exercise she should be doing. She can’t get herself to run or cycle or lift weights. In fact, the only thing she has been able to do is some indoor rowing. She enjoys it and it makes her feel good. “What else should I be doing?”, she asked me in a panic. “Nothing”, I said. “Do more rowing”.

The current UK physical activity recommendations are as follows:

  • Be physically active everyday
  • Do strengthening activities at least twice a week, covering all major muscle groups
  • Do at least 150 minutes of moderate (or 75 minutes of vigorous) intensity activity every week
  • Spend less time being sedentary

These are sensible recommendations, and are well-supported by decades of scientific research. If you are already meeting the guidelines, or exceeding them, great. But, most people aren’t. Why? Because it’s quite a high bar. It’s daunting, and people tend to avoid things that are daunting.

We think it’s far more helpful to make physical activity accessible, flexible, and personalised. We should emphasise doing something, instead of achieving something (I’ve talked before about the downsides of goals setting).

Rather than obsess about modalities, volume and intensity, remember these general physical activity principles:

  1. Some is better than none
  2. More is better than less
  3. More variety is better than less variety

If you’re just starting out with physical activity or are trying to do better, you can adopt these principles one by one. Start by doing something. When you are doing something consistently, gradually do a bit more of it. When you are doing more of it consistently, branch out into other things.

You’ll be surprised how organically this happens once you get started, but it helps to focus on the types of physical activity that work best for you.

Your preferred physical activities should tick the following boxes:

  • You want to do it
  • It makes you feel good
  • It gives you a good return on investment

You want to do it

No matter how many times Chris Whitty tells you that you should be lifting weights, if you don’t want to lift weights, then you’re very unlikely to lift weights consistently (and its consistency that matters). Choose the types of physical activity that you most want to do, the things you enjoy doing.

It makes you feel good

The very definition of wellbeing is feeling good, in body and mind, day in, day out. Physical activity should make you feel good, it should improve your wellbeing. If it doesn’t, what’s the point? I’m not talking about how it feels during exercise – this might be uncomfortable – but afterwards and for the rest of the day.

It gives you a good return on investment?

We all have limited time and energy to put into physical activity, so we should make it as efficient as possible. From an overall health perspective, single activities that work the whole body and combine aerobic and strength exercise tend to be the most efficient. Swimming, yoga, rock climbing, heavy gardening work, and dancing are good examples. Walking is great too (particularly in the hills).

The government guidelines are a good target. But they’re not particularly helpful if you’re trying to start (or restart) a physical activity routine. Start doing something, make that something the activity that works best for you, and the rest will follow.

Remember: Slow, incremental change is good.

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