Traditionally, adults were encouraged to take part in 20 to 60 minutes of vigorous exercise three or more times a week. In 1990, research showed around 90% of British adults believed vigorous exercise was important in maintaining and improving health and fitness. Since 1995 the Department of Health has instead promoted 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week, which can be achieved through everyday activities such as walking, housework or gardening. The research team believes this shift in attitudes is threatening the nation's health and is calling for evidence-based guidelines.
Dr Gary O'Donovan, exercise physiologist from the University of Exeter and lead author on the paper said: "Time and time again, the largest and most robust studies have shown that vigorously active individuals live longer and enjoy a better quality of life than moderately active individuals and couch potatoes. It's extremely worrying that British adults now believe that a brief stroll and a bit of gardening is enough to make them fit and healthy. The challenge now is to amend Britain's physical activity guidelines so that they emphasise the role vigorous activity plays in fighting obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease."
In addition to halving the risk of diabetes and heart disease, recent studies have shown that regular exercise offers protection from certain cancers. The research team believes that 30 minutes of brisk walking per day might be sufficient to reduce the risk of breast cancer, but regular participation in vigorous exercise is probably necessary to reduce the risk of prostate and colorectal cancers.
The researchers argue that in order to enable the public to make fully-informed decisions about exercise, policymakers should describe the dose-response relationship between physical activity and health. Dr. O'Donovan explains that: "Brisk walking offers some health benefits, but jogging, running and other vigorous activities offer maximal protection from disease."
Dr. O'Donovan adds: "Sedentary adults should complete a six- to twelve-week programme of moderate exercise before beginning a programme of vigorous exercise. Men older than 45 and women older than 55 should consult their GP before taking up vigorous exercise."
The survey, which was funded by the Sports Marketing Research Trust, shows for the first time, the extent of awareness of the current Government exercise recommendations: 78% of men and 84% of women interviewed were aware that moderate activity is currently recommended for adults.
Examples of moderate activities in healthy adults
Cycling at less than 10 mph
Mowing the lawn with a power mower
Examples of vigorous activities in healthy adults
Jogging and running