How much do we really exercise?


Two men exercising.

I read an article today about a University of Essex study into British exercise habits. This revealed that only 5% of people surveyed for the study followed NHS guidance on the minimum amount of exercise they should be doing each week.


This advice is that adults should exercise for at least two and a half hours per week, including undertaking at least two bouts of exercise that increase muscle strength (which can include carrying heavy shopping bags, lifting weights and heavy gardening).


For their study, researchers from the University of Essex examined the exercise habits of a quarter of a million people in England. The exact number of people meeting aerobic and strengthening exercise targets has been unclear until now and the report shows what the reality regarding both is today.


Researchers looked at data on 249,614 Britons aged 18 to 65 who responded to this Active Lives Survey. The findings, published in the journal PLoS ONE, show two-thirds of adults get their heart racing through aerobic exercise for the recommended two-and-a-half hours a week. The rate is slightly higher for men (69%) than women (65%). However, the researchers said this figure could be over-inflated because people tend to overestimate when self-reporting activity levels.


They also calculated the rate of people who met aerobic exercise recommendations and also did at least 10 minutes of strengthening exercises twice a week, based on three different definitions of strengthening exercises.


When using a Health Survey for England (HSE) definition (which includes 34 types of exercise from golf and cricket to weight training) 29% of men and 24% of women met strengthening exercise requirements.


The researchers said there is “limited evidence” that many of these activities make muscles stronger. Under a separate classification of strengthening workouts (that includes 10 exercises that there is evidence of health benefits), the rate fell to 16% of men and 9% for women. Running, football and weightlifting are included under this definition, for example.


But the figures fell to 7.3% of men and 4.1% of women under the most stringent guidelines, which only classify five exercises as a strengthening activity (weight training, circuit training, bodyweight exercise, yoga and weightlifting).


Overall, the proportion of adults doing enough aerobic and strengthening activities could be as high as one in three but it may be as low as one in 20 if the strictest definition is applied. The team also found that women, adults aged 50 to 65-year-old, those with a limiting disability, individuals living in deprived areas and people with fewer academic qualifications were less likely to exercise.


The researchers said those from poorer parts of the country may not be able to access gyms, while those with disabilities may struggle to perform resistance training. Gyms may also be “less welcoming” to women and older adults, the researchers speculate.


This comes after the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned Britons were on track to become the fattest nation in Europe in the next decade.


The study is interesting for me for a couple of reasons.


The first is that, if accurate (and the study seems to be credible in terms of the number of people involved) it suggests that the campaigning of organisations such as the NHS over recent years has had little impact on the behaviour of people.


Most of us will be aware of how mainstream and social media, as well as advertising and points of purchase, have been flooded by messaging for years about how exercise is beneficial and what people should do to live a healthy life. Apparently this messaging appears to have filtered out, particularly by those people who should in theory most benefit from it. This in itself calls into question the credibility of this strategy and its cost in changing people's behaviour for the better.


Can behaviour be changed by simply telling people to make the change?


On the evidence of this study, probably not.


People are complex and affected by several factors including, but not limited to, individual familial and financial circumstances, social class, physical and mental strength and stability and the other demands that people face living their lives. The options available and priorities important to an 18-year-old male are different to those facing a thirty old mother of two, for example.


Related to this is also the issue of how welcoming and viable the fitness industry is to people, particularly at their most immediate point of contact (gyms, fitness centres etc.). It is one thing to tell people to exercise and to engage in resistance training, but if people with no experience of such regular exercise are faced with joining a gym or fitness centre to achieve such aims, those points of access should be welcoming, affordable and accessible, as well as being places that build confidence and empower their members.


Is that the case for most people?


Possibly not.


The financial dimension is important here also, particularly in the current challenging economic environment. When individuals and families are prioritising their spending in the face of rising inflation and economic uncertainty, is going to a gym and paying something like £30 to £70 a month a justifiable priority?


Probably not.


Then there is the issue of modern gym culture, over-emphasised via such social media as Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, which can appear to be elitist and only for the beautiful people. For someone starting out to become the best they can be, this can be a mountain that might appear too hard to climb (reinforced by the flood of "perfect body" images on platforms such as Instagram).


Is it the case that regular exercise (and resistance training) is helpful for individuals in the immediate, medium and long run? In the opinion of this personal trainer, absolutely. Being fit and strong helps build personal responsibility, liberates people and plays a crucial role in delivering a long and meaningful life with opportunities.


Should people be encouraged to pursue this as a central goal that in turn helps society and the political economy (important for such people who are also tax-payers)?


Certainly.


But do we also, as a fitness sector, have more to do to open such opportunities for people who are also our customers, regardless of what government policy is?


Absolutely.


Julien

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