Guidelines for Physical Activity

Guidelines for Physical Activity

Why physical activity?

Our lives are becoming increasingly sedentary, meaning our levels of physical activity are very low, due to the use of motorized transport and associated hours spent in traffic jams! We also increasingly use screens for work, education, and recreation and spend too much time sitting in front of them. This higher level of sedentary behavior has poor consequences for health and wellbeing, such as increased body fat compared to muscle, poorer cardiometabolic health, reduced fitness, and reduced sleep duration in children and adolescents. In adults, a sedentary lifestyle is associated with increased incidence of cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and cancer, and people who are insufficiently active have a 20% to 30% increased risk of premature death compared to people who are sufficiently active. Decreased levels of physical activity also have broader negative impacts on health systems and economic development due to the burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), as well as on community well-being, mental health, and overall quality of life.

The benefits of regular physical activity are numerous, and this is true no matter how young or old you are. Some of the key benefits are:

  1. Helps prevent NCDs such as hypertension, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and breast and colon cancer. For many long-term conditions progression may be slowed, or severity reduced, and medication may be reduced or even discontinued.
  2. Helps maintain a healthy body weight and prevent overweight and obesity.
  3. Improves mental health (reduce depression), quality of life and well-being.
  4. Reduces the risk of falls as well as hip or vertebral fractures in older adults and the elderly.
  5. Improves physical fitness, muscular and cardiorespiratory fitness.
  6. Improves cognitive outcomes (academic performance, executive function) and mental health in children and adolescents.
  7. Improves sleep.
  8. Enhances immunity.
What is “physical activity” and what is “regular”?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines physical activity as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure – including activities undertaken while working, playing, carrying out household chores, travelling, and engaging in recreational activities. The term “physical activity” should not be confused with “exercise”, which is a subcategory of physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive, and aims to improve or maintain one or more components of physical fitness. Beyond exercise, any other physical activity that is done during leisure time, or as a means of getting from A to B, or as part of a person’s work, has a health benefit. Furthermore, both moderate- and vigorous-intensity physical activity improve health.

WHO has provided guidelines on how much physical activity you should do depending on your age. The importance of reducing the time you spend sitting or lying down cannot be over-emphasized.

Children and adolescents (6 – 17-year-olds)

It is important to provide young people opportunities and encouragement to participate in physical activities that are appropriate for their age, that are enjoyable, and offer variety. Children and adolescents ages 6 through 17 years should do 60 minutes (1 hour) or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily.

  • Aerobic: Most of the 60 minutes or more per day should be either moderate- or vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity and should include vigorous-intensity physical activity on at least 3 days a week.
  • Muscle-strengthening: As part of their 60 minutes or more of daily physical activity, children and adolescents should include muscle-strengthening physical activity on at least 3 days a week. Examples include carrying loads or weightlifting.
  • Bone-strengthening: As part of their 60 minutes or more of daily physical activity, children and adolescents should include bone-strengthening physical activity on at least 3 days a week. This includes rebounding work e.g. running, jumping, rope skipping and the like.

Compared to those who are inactive, physically active youth have higher levels of fitness, lower body fat, and stronger bones and muscles. Physical activity also has brain health benefits for school-aged children, including improved cognition (e.g., academic performance, memory) and reduced symptoms of depression (e.g. mood swings). Regular physical activity in childhood and adolescence can also be important for promoting lifelong health and well-being and preventing risk factors for various health conditions like heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.

Adults aged 18–64 years:

For this age group, physical activity includes recreational or leisure-time physical activity, transportation (e.g walking or cycling), occupational (i.e. work), household chores, play, games, sports, or planned exercise, in the context of daily, family, and community activities. In order to improve cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, bone health and reduce the risk of NCDs and depression the following are recommended:

  • 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 example, two 30-minute runs plus 30 minutes of fast walking equates to 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity.
  • Aerobic activity should be performed in bouts of at least 10 minutes duration.
  • Muscle-strengthening activities at moderate or greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week, as these provide additional health benefits.
  • Moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity may be increased to more than 300 minutes; or one can do more than 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity; or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity throughout the week for additional health benefits.
  • The amount of time spent being sedentary must be reduced. Replacing sedentary time with physical activity of any intensity (including light intensity) provides health benefits. To help reduce the detrimental effects of high levels of sedentary behavior on health, all adults should aim to do more than the recommended levels of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity.
Adults aged 65 years and above:

Same as for adults as outlined above; and 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.

When adults of this age group cannot do the recommended amounts of physical activity due to health conditions, they should be as physically active as their abilities and conditions allow.

*This includes balance training, aerobic activity, and muscle-strengthening activities, for example walking (aerobic activity), lifting weights (muscle strengthening), and incorporating balance by walking backwards or sideways or by standing on one foot. These activities can be done at home or in a structured group setting.

Sources and further information:

Mr. Douglas Bamweyana is an Assistant Lecturer, Sports Science, Department of Biochemistry and Sports Science. He has a BSc. Sports Science (Mak), MSc. Sports Biomechanics (Loughborough University - UK), an MBA (Univ. of Nicosia) and is currently a PhD Student. His research interests include optimizing human performance, human movement variability and engineering and computer simulation modelling. He is a CAF A Licensed Coach and FUFA 1st Division Licensed Coach. He is President - Uganda Society of Sports Science and Physical Education (USSSPE).

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