Physical activity: How can we turn inspiration into action?

  • Posted on Apr 19, 2016

With an exciting summer of sport ahead, how can we turn inspiration into action?

Many people are looking forward to cheering on their sporting heroes this summer. Whether it’s watching Euro 2016, the European Gymnastic Championships, Wimbledon or the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio, or cheering on friends and family taking part in marathons or fun runs, most of us at some point will be inspired by sport to think about our own physical activity.

As a nation we still have a way to go to get everybody active every day. Over a third of adults are doing less than 30 minutes of physical activity a week, and despite good evidence of the clinical benefits, the rates of inactivity are even higher in those with chronic and long term health conditions.

One of the great outcomes of the London 2012 Olympic Legacy was the significant investment in community sport across England, with more than £1 billion invested in youth and community sport.

The new national sports strategy published in December set out a clear cross-government commitment to increase sport and physical activity across the life course and in every community.

Inactivity continues to cost society through preventable illness and premature deaths, sickness absence and lost productivity, and at an individual level through loss of independence and social isolation.

Importantly, the strategy recognised the many different ways to be physically active and the breadth of positive outcomes linked to increasing the nation’s activity, from physical and mental wellbeing to social inclusion and economic development.

The benefits of keeping active

Regular physical activity is hugely important for people of all ages. It can reduce the risk and help management of over 20 chronic conditions, including coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer and musculoskeletal conditions. As little as 10 minutes of physical activity at a time provides physical and mental health benefits.

Regular muscle strengthening activity at least twice a week is also important to reduce disease risk and build the core strength and muscle and joint stability that is essential as we get older to keep active, independent and socially connected. There are lots of ways to strengthen your muscles, from working out with your own body weight or household objects to carrying the shopping or going to the gym, yoga or Pilates classes.

The right amount of activity

Insufficient physical activity is one of the top 10 causes of preventable ill-health in England. The UK Chief Medical Officers have published recommended levels of physical activity for every age group and PHE has supported this with two infographics to make the guidelines more accessible.

Few of us are motivated by health reasons alone to get active every day; we do it because it’s fun, social and a great way to reduce stress. What works for one person will be different for someone else, whether it’s going to the gym or playing sport, cycling, running or walking to work or school every day. The key thing is to get the blood pumping for at least ten minutes each time, so you know you’re doing some good for your heart, brain, bones and muscles.

The most successful way to achieve the recommend levels of physical activity is to find a way to build up to a pace that suits you and incorporate this into everyday life. Something is better than nothing and it’s really never too late to start.

Breaking down barriers

Spring is a great time to get active and make the most of the weather, as days get longer, lighter and warmer. But, for many people, certain challenges can get in the way of regular exercise, such as childcare, work responsibilities or a lack of local facilities.

However, there is support available out there. For example, the One You health quiz is designed to help you make changes that fit into your life and responsibilities, and the Change4Life ten-minute shake up campaign gives parents simple, fun games to help kids be active every day. Employers can also take action by implementing the evidence-based Workplace Wellbeing Charter to promote physical activity in the workplace.

Oomph, which brings personal trainers into care homes to teach staff how to support older adults to get active, is a great example of a social enterprise dedicated to making exercise more inclusive.

Interventions to promote physical activity must also address barriers related to safety, culture and access. Great examples include Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign targeting women and girls, and Mind’s new Get Set to Go initiative for women with mental health problems.

The national Everybody active every day framework sets out a vision for a radical shift in physical activity on a national scale based on evidence of ‘what works’ around the world. And we are already seeing changes.

For example, NHS England’s Healthy New Towns programme, supported by PHE, will work with ten housing developments to tackle unhealthy environments and design workplaces, schools and leisure facilities that encourage physical activity. We are also working at a national level with other government departments to improve the built environment for physical activity.

Keeping active is important for everyone, at every age; London 2012 kick-started efforts to increase physical activity. Four years later, we must keep building on that legacy.