Physical Activity

Here is the bottom line based on the best research evidence: you need to commit 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) each week to engage in physical activity. There are no ‘if’s or ‘maybe’s’, and it is an ongoing necessity as you get older. Making this a regular habit will significantly reduce your risk of developing serious and dangerous illness, such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, stroke and some cancers. More than that, it will also help you to lose weight: a 60kg (10 stone) person walking for 30 minutes burns 150 calories), and will help your sense of physical , mental and emotional well-being. Breaking the 150 minutes down, what you need to do is at least 30 minutes of physical activity such as ‘fast walking’ on five days of the week (30 minutes every day would be even better, but it is OK to have a couple of days off each week if you have to).

What is ‘fast walking’? It is going at a good pace of about 4mph. It is not strolling down to the pub, or across the car park at your local supermarket car park, dawdling up and down the aisles, going through check out and heading back to the car. This kind of physical activity is called ‘Moderate-intensity physical activity’, and it means doing enough to raise your heart rate and break a sweat. One way to judge if you are doing enough is that you are able to talk, but not sing the words to your favourite song. Fast walking and cycling are the most common ways of engaging in ‘moderate-intensity physical activity’, but there is also jogging, dancing, swimming, badminton, tennis, etc.

Here are ways to think about including exercise into your daily routine so that it becomes a regular habit:

  • Walk part of every journey
  • Try fast walking to the shops
  • Go swimming twice a week
  • Use the stairs instead of the lift
  • Leave the car behind for short journeys
  • Cycle to the shops or a favourite outdoor space
  • Do a regular walk with a friend
  • Go for a good walk with family or friends in the evening (say one hour after dinner)

The good news is that you don’t have to do this physical activity all in one chunk. You can break it up into blocks of 10-15 minutes. It is also important to avoid sitting in one place for too long, for instance in front of a computer screen, or the television. Look at your watch when you first sit down and plan to take regular breaks every 40 minutes if you are going to be sitting or working in one place.

The basic recommendation for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week does not change or get less as men get older. You need to keep being active into your 60’s 70’s and 80’s in order to keep the risk of chronic illness down.

If you are not used to physical activity, building up to a session of 30-minute fast walking will take some time. Increase up exercise levels gradually. If you can only walk fast for a couple of minutes to begin with, that’s fine. Don’t overdo it on the first few days and don’t injure yourself by being over-ambitious. You can also break up your activity into 10-minute chunks, as long as you are always doing it at a moderate intensity. Listen to how your body is feeling, it is a trustworthy guide: if it is complaining, slow down. Don’t be in too much hurry to succeed, do a little more every day and slowly increase your exercise time over the weeks, and if you have any concerns or worries about how your body feels when you exercise, go to your GP.

If you are overweight or obese and are aiming to lose weight as well as get fitter, you should aim to increase physical activity to around 60-90 minutes on at least five days of the week (that is a total of between 300 and 450 minutes per week). To lose weight, you not only need to exercise more than 150 minutes a week, but also make changes to your diet (See the Lose Weight!  section below).

Vigorous Intensity Physical Activity

Once you have reached weekly exercise levels of 150 minutes, continuing to develop with a weekly schedule of more intense physical activity is a good way to progress and keep yourself motivated. ‘Vigorous-intensity physical activity’ means you are breathing hard and fast, and your heart rate has gone up quite a bit. If you are working at this level, you won’t be able to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath. Faster jogging and running, cycling hard up hill, sustained fast swimming and aerobic classes are good examples.

IMPORTANT: When you are over 50 it is essential for you to take advice from an exercise expert before increasing to ‘vigorous-intensity physical activity’. This is because advice about how much ‘vigorous-intensity physical activity’ to take becomes more complicated as you get older and depends on your overall health, and unlike the basic moderate-intensity 150 minutes each week there is no one size fits all.

In general, 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) of ‘vigorous-intensity physical activity’ can give similar health benefits to 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity. 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity running or hill cycling, plus muscle-strengthening activities (see below) on 2 or more days a week is one recommended combination. A mix of moderate- and vigorous-intensity physical activity is also possible, for example a week of two 30-minute runs plus 30 minutes of fast walking and muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days.

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