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Running Commentary: How little exercise is enough?

Running Commentary: How little exercise is enough?

October 29, 2014

Andy Mahony caught the running bug a couple of years ago. He works with the council’s public health team. In Running Commentary, he shares his favourite running routes and parks, as well as tips he has picked up while being overtaken by a speeding Santa and nipped at by geese. And then there are all the other weird and wonderful things he encounters along the way.

How much exercise do we actually all need? It may surprise you.

I recently read an alarming fact from Public Health England. It seems that around half of all women and a third of men in England are damaging their health as a result of a lack of physical activity.

But what, you may well ask, constitutes enough physical activity? Well, the guidance is different for different age groups, but for adults (aged 18-64) activity over a week should add up to:

  • At least 150 minutes (2½ hours) of moderate intensity activity; or
  • At least 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity; or
  • A combination of moderate and vigorous intensity activity
  • We should also be undertaking physical activity to improve muscle strength on at least two days a week.

This seemed like a tall order, so I decided to share the information with a few friends and colleagues.  This revealed that few of them felt they were matching the recommended levels. Even those who thought themselves reasonably active were fairly wide of the mark.

Is it unrealistic?

“It’s not realistic,” said one friend. “If you’re not into a sport you’ll never get near that amount,” said a colleague. “I’m going for a pint,” said another.

Were they right? My first reaction was to have an honest appraisal of my own efforts and see if I was meeting the recommended levels. Now with the Ealing Half Marathon behind me and not currently in training for anything, I’m running just three times a week, for an average of 35 minutes each time. That’s about one hour, 45 minutes a week. Running counts as ‘vigorous intensity activity’ which means I’m doing half an hour over and above the recommended 75 minutes. So far, so good.

Of course not everyone is interested in participating in sport, and it’s certainly true that not everyone is into running. So how would I fare with exercise if I didn’t enjoy running?

Well, I also walk to and from work, which is about 20 minutes each way. That’s 200 minutes a week, or 10 minutes above the recommended levels of ‘moderate intensity activity’.  I have to say the walk to and from work does not feel ‘moderately intense’ but apparently it is. Come to think of it, can something actually be moderately intense? Never mind.

No walk to work, no running. What, then?

It is of course also true that not everyone has the luxury of being able to walk to work, and may have no choice but to drive or take public transport. So what if I didn’t like running and did not have the option of walking to work? How can I get in my required levels of exercise?

I’ll admit it is now getting trickier. I need to find time for a 30-minute brisk walk at least five times a week. Or alternatively three 10-minute brisk walks three times a day, on at least five days a week. That will give 150 minutes, or if you prefer, two and half hours. Yes, if mental arithmetic counted as moderately intense activity we’d be on our way already.

Not everyone can take a half hour walk at lunch time. What if I could manage that three times a week, and commit to an hour’s walk on a Sunday? That would cover it. I could also get off the bus or train a stop early some days and squeeze in some 10-minute walks that way. However, it’s safe to say that I’m far less likely to do that on the way home – especially in the winter.

Exercise outdoors

I guess the trick is to squeeze in some brisk walks of 10 minutes or more into your daily routine. Clearly that’s going to be easier for some than it is for others. In Ealing we have some great parks and open spaces – and even a few walking groups – so there’s no excuse for not wrapping up warm and kicking a few leaves around. You could even squeeze in the essential strength training activity on the outdoor gym equipment. So it seems that, with a bit of thought, most of us could reach the recommended levels of exercise, and do so for free without the need to join a gym.

Of course, the advantage of being a keen runner is that I don’t really need to check if I’m getting enough exercise. And strength training exercise, whilst a bit repetitive and boring, does reduce the risk of your legs turning to jelly just as you approach the finish line. And that’s never a good look…