How much exercise do you think you need – and how much do you actually do? Despite extreme exercise trends that include ultra-marathons and spending thousands of pounds on expensive home gym equipment, the buoyant findings from researchers is that just 10 minutes a day can add almost two years to our lives.
But though we can “get a surprisingly large return for such a small amount of time”, according to Dr Steve Moore, who researches how physical activity is linked to health and life expectancy, we are not moving enough – and our activity levels are getting worse.
“Everyone knows that doing a bit more physical activity has an impact on extending life while reducing risk of disease and illness – both physical and mental – but for some reason it still doesn’t quite register,” says Stephen Price, a fitness entrepreneur.
He has spent 20 years in the industry developing high-end offerings based on cutting-edge technology to train everyone from CEOs to celebrities like Margot Robbie, as well as clinical research developing exercise prescriptions for oncology patients.
Price’s latest concept, Movementum, is based on the idea that we just need to move our bodies – in whatever way we can.
“I’ve seen in our clinical setting with cancer patients the role that increasing physical activity during treatment has on survivorship,” he says.
“But this is a message that needs to be talked about outside of the clinic. This is where the impact should be seen, in prevention and reducing risks that can change the health of whole communities. This is the backbone on which Movementum was set up – to empower mental and physical health through movement.”
The idea is that we need to do small “snacks” of exercise – be they a structured class, a walk with a friend or some gardening – every day.
“Research shows us that by increasing your activity by as little as 55 minutes a week you can have a huge impact on the length and ultimately the quality of your life,” Price says.
“This can be spread out throughout the day or week and doesn’t have to be done all in one block – and you can start small – which makes it exceptionally attainable.” In fact, he says, small daily chunks are better than doing a once- or twice-a-week exercise class, then doing nothing else.
His comments are based on solid research: in 2012, scientists at the National Institute of Health in the US – led by Dr Moore – examined data from almost 650,000 midlifers and found that being active for 75 minutes a week, or just over 10 minutes a day, was associated with a gain of 1.8 years in life expectancy, compared with doing nothing at all.
Those who did more exercise – around 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise a week, as recommended by the World Health Organisation – could expect to see an extra life expectancy of around 4.5 years.
One particularly interesting finding from the NIH study was that being active, even if the individual was obese, was associated with longer life than those who are of “normal” weight range but inactive. Being slim is not enough.
But a decade later, the message still hasn’t sunk in. In a survey last month of 600 UK adults conducted by the fitness brand Sweatband, more than three quarters of respondents said they did not know that exercising for 10 minutes a day could add two years to their lives. “I feel like the amount of gain you can achieve is still underappreciated,” Dr Moore adds.
Worryingly we’re getting more and more sedentary. We are 20 per cent less active than we were in the 1960s, and if current trends continue, we will be 35 per cent less active by 2030, according to government statistics.
Part of the reason, Price believes, is that the messaging around exercise has become too complicated. “I do feel that the notion of ‘moderate exercise’ is slightly misunderstood, making it seem somewhat unattainable to some demographics,” he says. His aim is to simplify the messaging and empower us all to start moving more.
When I tried one of their three signature 25-minute classes, the instructor guided me through a series of breathing and stretching exercises, based on the principals of neuromuscular behaviour in order to properly isolate, stabilise and manipulate my muscles. Basically, it was teaching me the correct posture and the right breathing patterns to assist movements that I do every day.
It is crucial that we do because doing nothing at all is deadly. According to government statistics, physical inactivity is associated with one in six deaths in the UK and is estimated to cost the UK £7.4 billion annually. Around one in three (34 per cent) of men and one in two (42 per cent) of women are not active enough for good health, with older people less active. Exercise is a magic bullet. In the 2019 Physical Activity Guidelines report, the chief medical officers wrote: “If physical activity were a drug, we would refer to it as a miracle cure, due to the great many illnesses it can prevent and help treat.”
But along with adding years to our lives, Prof Mathew Wilson, of the Institute of Sport and Exercise Health and an expert with Movementum, adds that exercise also enables us to live a better life. “The main consideration is around living longer with a higher quality of life in our later years,” he says. “In recent years there has been a decline in the number of years we live in a healthy state: we’re living longer, but with poorer health. This is a huge problem and something that increasing physical activity levels can help re-address so you can enjoy those extra years.”
But building in regular exercise – especially for those unused to doing any – requires a mindset shift. “Being able to sustain small changes in physical activity is as much down to behaviour as it is your physical capabilities,” says Dr Heather McKee, a behavioural scientist and Movementum expert.
“The people who will be most effective at making a behavioural change and maintaining it over time will be those who are intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation is defined as doing an activity because of the joy and satisfaction it gives you.”
So, what counts as moderate to strenuous physical activity?
“Literally anything, as long as you are moving with purpose,” says Prof Wilson. “Don’t overthink it – gardening, walking, housework, everything counts, and all can be banked as physical activity when looking at minutes achieved.”
Spending time on small, daily movements like these, says Movementum specialist David Higgins, will “keep joints supple, encourage good quality muscle tissue and even help the nervous system remain primed and responsive. All this lessens injury, promotes better strength gain, energy levels and the ability to move more and often.”
One of the most overlooked forms of exercise – often the most enjoyable – is simply a walk with a friend. “Doing regular low-impact activity like this is so beneficial. If you can also catch up with a partner or friends, you will keep each other accountable, and it becomes more enjoyable,” Higgins says. “The most important thing with exercise when trying to embed it as a habit is having fun so that you can continue doing it, every day – or at least as often as you can.”