The NHS guidelines say "taking a brisk walk, spending some time doing the gardening or doing a few laps of the local swimming pool on the way home from work" can all improve health. They urge 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day five days per week.
A survey of nearly 1,200 people has shown that around half of men and three quarters of women think moderate exercise confers the greatest health benefits.
Yet the authors of this new study, published in Preventive Medicine, say this is not so. On the contrary, vigorous exercise is best for averting disease, they stress. Says lead author Dr Gary O'Donovan from Exeter and Brunel Universities:"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. "Brisk walking offers some health benefits, but jogging, running and other vigorous activities offer maximal protection from disease."
Other specialists say the survey results are not surprising, and that few people in any event met the guidelines for moderate exercise. Yet, Paul Gately, professor of exercise and obesity at Leeds Metropolitan opines that it is very difficult to formulate a "one size fits all" policy to exercise, as moderate exercise for one would be intense for another. Gately also stresses that public misunderstandings about exercise could not be blamed solely on the government, as academics themselves were continually formulating new theories.
In August alone two separate and apparently contradictory reports emerged. One found walking less than the current guidelines stipulated had significant health benefits; another suggested a minimum of 20 minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week was needed for good health.
In actuality, no-one is clear what part exercise really plays in preventing disease. While some studies have shown that those who workout may have a reduced cancer risk, it can be difficult to separate this from other lifestyle factors like diet, alcohol and tobacco consumption, and socio-economic group.
A Department of Health spokesperson was quoted that its guidelines were "based on a comprehensive review of the evidence, carried out by a team of academics and expert advisers. "We take a keen interest in new developments in this area, but there are no plans at present to change the existing recommendations for adults."