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The importance of physical activities

This article discusses the importance of physical activities, and looks at its benefits for a range of demographics.
a male standing lifting weight
© University of Reading

The saying goes “you can’t outrun a bad diet”, however, the opposite is equally true. Physical activity and nutrition go hand-in-hand with neither being more important than the other.

In the ‘See Also’ section below you will find the “WHO Guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour” which provide evidence-based public health recommendations for children, adolescents, adults and older adults on the amount of physical activity required to provide health benefits reduce health risks.

In children and adolescents

Physical activity has the potential to result in the following health benefits: improved physical fitness, cardiometabolic health, bone health, cognitive outcomes, mental health; and reduced adiposity.

It is recommended that: children and adolescents undertake at least an average of 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous-intensity, mostly aerobic, physical activity, across the week. On at least 3 days of the week, vigorous-intensity aerobic activities, as well as those that strengthen muscle and bone, should be undertaken.

There may be additional benefits of physical activity to health outcomes for those living with disability including improved cognition in individuals with diseases or disorders that impair cognitive function, including attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and improvements in physical function in children with intellectual disability.

Children and adolescents living with disability

Children and adolescents should start by doing small amounts of physical activity and gradually increase the frequency, intensity, and duration over time.

Children and adolescents living with a disability may need to consult a healthcare professional or other physical activity and disability specialist to help determine the type and amount of activity appropriate for them.

In adults

Physical activity has the potential to result in the following health benefits: improved all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease mortality, incident hypertension, incident site-specific cancers, incident type-2 diabetes, mental health, cognitive health, and sleep; measures of adiposity may also improve.

Similar benefits are seen in older adults (those aged over 65 years of age). In older adults, physical activity also helps prevent falls, fall-related injuries and declines in bone health and functional ability.

Adults and older adults

They should do at least 150– 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity; or at least 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity; or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity throughout the week, for substantial health benefits.

Additional benefits can be found with more time being active. Adults and older adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities at a moderate or greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week, as these provide additional health benefits.

As part of their weekly physical activity, older adults should do varied multicomponent physical activity that emphasizes functional balance and strength training at moderate or greater intensity, on 3 or more days a week, to enhance functional capacity and to prevent falls.

In pregnant and postpartum women

Physical activity during pregnancy and postpartum confers benefits on maternal and foetal health including decreased risk of pre-eclampsia, gestational hypertension, gestational diabetes, excessive gestational weight gain, delivery complications and postpartum depression, and fewer new-born complications.

No adverse effects on birth weight and no increase in the risk of stillbirth have been found.

Regular physical activity

It is recommended that all pregnant and postpartum women without contraindication should undertake regular physical activity throughout pregnancy and postpartum including 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week.

They should incorporate muscle-strengthening activities and the addition of gentle stretching may also be beneficial.

Women who, before pregnancy, habitually engaged in vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, or who were physically active, can continue these activities during pregnancy and the postpartum period.

Additional safety considerations for pregnant women when undertaking physical activity are:

  • Avoid physical activity during excessive heat, especially with high humidity.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking water before, during, and after physical activity.
  • Avoid participating in activities that involve physical contact; pose a high risk of falling; or might limit oxygenation (such as activities at high altitude, when not normally living at high altitude).
  • Avoid activities in the supine position after the first trimester of pregnancy.
  • When considering exercising significantly above the recommended guidelines pregnant women should seek supervision from a specialist healthcare provider.
  • Pregnant women should be informed by their healthcare provider of the danger signs alerting them as to when to stop, or to limit physical activity and consult a qualified healthcare provider immediately should they occur.
  • Return to physical activity gradually after delivery, and in consultation with a health-care provider, in the case of delivery by Caesarean section.

For people living with chronic conditions

Physical activity can confer health benefits:

  • For cancer survivors – physical activity improves all-cause mortality, cancer-specific mortality, and risk of cancer recurrence or second primary cancer;
  • For people living with hypertension – physical activity improves cardiovascular disease mortality, disease progression, physical function, health-related quality of life;
  • For people living with type-2 diabetes – physical activity reduces rates of mortality from cardiovascular disease and indicators of disease progression; and
  • For people living with HIV – physical activity can improve physical fitness and mental health (reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression) and does not adversely affect disease progression.

Important notes:

  • When not able to meet the above recommendations, adults with these chronic conditions should aim to engage in physical activity according to their abilities.
  • Adults with these chronic conditions should start by doing small amounts of physical activity and gradually increase the frequency, intensity, and duration over time.
  • Adults with these chronic conditions may wish to consult with a physical activity specialist or healthcare professional for advice on the types and amounts of activity appropriate for their individual needs.
  • Pre-exercise medical clearance is generally unnecessary for individuals without contraindications prior to beginning light- or moderate-intensity physical activity not exceeding the demands of brisk walking or everyday living. In all age groups and all circumstances, it is important to limit the amount of time spent being sedentary. Replacing sedentary time with physical activity of any intensity (including light intensity) provides health benefits.
© University of Reading
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