Do you know how active you should be?

Children doing exercise

Margarita KokkorouMargarita Kokkorou, a nutritionist and dietitian, is a member of World Cancer Research Fund’s (WCRF) Policy and Public Affairs team. She is passionate about evidence-informed health policy and healthy lifestyle promotion.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has updated its guidelines on physical activity for the first time since 2010, so let’s take a look at the benefits of physical activity.

What is physical activity?

I’m sure you have heard how important it is to stay active and not be too sedentary, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Many of you may have thought, “How can I be active, particularly during lockdown when travel is restricted and many sports are banned or gyms closed?”

But what do being “physically active” and “sedentary” mean? Simply, physical activity is any body movement that uses energy, from walking to vigorous exercise. Being sedentary refers to behaviour resulting in low energy expenditure, such as sitting while watching television or playing computer games.

The pandemic has changed our daily lives in many ways, making many of us more sedentary thanks to working from home and lockdown. However, even at home, there are many ways we can stay active, such as doing housework, climbing the stairs or carrying the shopping.

Keeping us alive

The COVID-19 pandemic aside, the global prevalence of insufficient physical activity and high sedentary behaviour was 27.5% in 2016. Inactivity causes 9% of premature mortality, or more than 5.3m of the 57m deaths that occurred worldwide in 2008, in addition to the associated high economic burden worldwide of treating people with illness related to sedentary behaviour.

Being sedentary is also associated with poor mental health – such as depression – and has been found to increase the risk of developing health problems, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and obesity.

Did you also know about the protective effect of regular physical activity? It can reduce the risk of developing breast, endometrial and colon cancer and help to maintain a healthy body weight and overall better general wellbeing.

New guidelines

It’s essential to create environments that promote physical activity and educate everyone about how to be physically active. So how can governments help promote active living and reduce the prevalence of insufficient physical activity? The answer is by developing physical activity policies.

Guidelines with recommendations on the frequency, intensity, duration and type of physical activity for each age group are an important tool to help us understand what type of activity to do throughout the different stages of our lives.

The new WHO guidelines include for the first time:

  • Recommendations on sedentary behaviour and how to reduce sitting time for children and adolescents, adults and older adults.
  • Specific recommendations for sub-populations such as pregnant and postpartum women and people living with chronic conditions (such as NCDs) or disabilities, highlighting the specificity and relevance of physical activity guidelines to different populations.

The new WHO guidelines define health as a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing and include major developments such as evidence of the health benefits of physical activity for mental and cognitive health, quality of life, and sleep. The take-home message of the new guidelines is that “some physical activity is better than none”, replacing the previous recommendations of a minimum of 10 minutes aerobic physical activity. In addition, I cannot hide how much I enjoyed watching the promo video #EveryMoveCounts encouraging everyone to be more physically active.

Since 2010, many countries have either adopted WHO guidelines or have developed their own but it will be interesting to see if these new guidelines spur countries on to taken even more action.

Everybody moving

There’s a lot of discussion around the messaging of physical activity in the guidelines and how effective they are. Do they only speak to the experts, or can they be used by the general public?

Often physical activity can be confused with exercise. Many people associate exercise with putting in a lot of effort and sweating, which can be off-putting and discouraging. So how do we get the messages to the wider population?

The UK uses infographics targeting different age groups, pregnant women and people living with disability. The infographics are jargon-free, and use clear and encouraging messages on the short-term benefits of being active, such as “makes you feel good”, as well as information on the duration and type of activities people should do, for example “at least 150 min of moderate intensity activity per week”.

Canada recently published its 24-hour Movement Guidelines on how to move more, reduce sedentary time and sleep well, accompanied by infographics targeting the public.

How WCRF are helping

We believe it’s important to look at the whole environment that influences people’s behaviour to encourage people to be more physically active, as it’s a key way to reduce the risk of a preventable cancer.

We use our MOVING framework and database to influence national governments to develop policies that promote physical activity. Our MOVING database contains physical activity guidelines from around the world, as well as mass communication campaigns, programmes promoting physical activity, active design guidelines, physical activity training and qualifications, and more.

I invite you to think about how much exercise you do and if you meet the physical activity guidelines. Finally, I would like to encourage you to think about the environment you live in – do you think it plays a big role in how active you are?