Great news for over-60s who like gardening! And for DIY enthusiasts and people who enjoy similar activities around the home and garage.

A recent study* from Stockholm, Sweden, showed that men over 60 who did these activities daily were nearly a third less likely to suffer from diseases such as coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes than men who were less active. Indeed, these men gained almost as much benefit as those who were more vigorously active.

The study followed 4,000 men aged over 60 for twelve years, and obtained their results by repeatedly questioning the participants about 12 different activities and through laboratory tests.

These findings are valuable because many people as they get older find that they can’t fully achieve the recommended levels of physical activity – or are disinclined to do so. The research shows how everyone can derive significant benefit from the activities they can do and enjoy doing.

Activities like gardening and DIY entail standing, using upper and lower limb muscles and walking, and this increases metabolic rate, maintains muscle power, preserves bones and affects body metabolism. Though everyday activities may not involve more than moderate levels of exercise, these effects have been shown to be of clear benefit.

This doesn’t mean that greater levels of physical activity are unnecessary. Part of the study showed those who were even more active gained an even greater reduction in risk of the diseases.

Our society has become increasingly sedentary both at work and in leisure time. Sitting for long periods is one of the riskiest things anyone can do, and yet many older and retired people – and, indeed, many younger people – spend much of their day sitting. This study helps confirm the advice that we should all reduce sitting to a minimum and find something we like doing instead.

 

*Link to study abstract:  http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2013/10/08/bjsports-2012-092038

 

 

We’re told the NHS is strapped for cash and it might get worse before it gets better. So, is there anything we can do as individuals? Actually, yes there is. Better still, it may even bring us financial benefits too.

A recent report* from Nuffield Health and the London School of Economics called “12 minutes more…” makes a strong economic case for taking more exercise. It is an approachable document well worth browsing through.

The health benefits of activity have been shown repeatedly: increased physical activity reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke, helps control type 2 diabetes, reduces blood pressure and body fat, improves aspects of mental health and much more. As a result, governments around the world – including our own – have recommended we all do at least 150 minutes of moderately physical activity a week.

Unfortunately, the report concludes that the majority of us don’t achieve this level. But it goes a stage further by looking at what this means economically for individuals and for the country.

First, there’s the personal burden when someone contracts one of the long-term diseases that physical activity might have helped prevent. Quite apart from the unpleasantness of the disease itself, there is the potential for loss of earnings and the impact this has on one’s own life and the lives of family members.

Secondly, there’s the less obvious but even greater burden illness puts on society as a whole through the loss of economic activity and the demands placed on the NHS and other organisations. The sums involved are quite staggering. If everyone did the recommended amount of exercise, the report authors calculate this would save the NHS £257 million per year. Mental health savings – taking account of savings for the NHS, earnings and welfare – would be over £6.3 billion.

On an individual level, the report estimates that the average household income of those that do moderate sports is more than £6,500 a year higher than inactive households. These people are also more likely to be employed.

This report contains a lot of detail establishing how all these figures were calculated. But even if only a proportion of these staggering amounts could be saved it shows that we can all do our bit by increasing our activity levels.

Many economists believe that if something doesn’t hit our own pocket directly we tend to ignore it – and that certainly seems true for physical activity. It’s only when a report like this spells it out to us that we can see clearly the enormous cost inactivity is having.

And the solution is hardly a drastic one. The report’s title “12 minutes more…” comes from its bottom line finding: that all it would take to improve our health and personal finances, and to relieve the financial pressure on the NHS, is an increase in the amount of activity we do on average of just 12 minutes a day.

 

 

*Link to the report: http://www.nuffieldhealth.com/sites/default/files/inline/Nuffield%20Health_%20LSE_Low-Fitness_Report.pdf

 

There’s compelling evidence that keeping active has very great health benefits, helping to prevent many of today’s common diseases. But how much do you need to do? And does it matter what activity you choose?

A recent study* has provided some interesting evidence. Over a 6-year period, researchers compared 16,000 walkers with 33,000 runners to see what difference physical activity made to their risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and level of blood cholesterol – factors linked with heart disease.

They grouped the walkers and runners according to the average amount of activity they did. To do this, they used a measure (“metabolic equivalent”) that took account of the weight of each person and the calories they burnt. This allowed the amount of activity done by the walkers and the runners to be compared directly. The highest-activity group was doing the equivalent of an hour or so of brisk jogging every day (or a couple of hours of brisk walking), while the lowest-activity group was averaging around an hour of gentle walking a day in total (or the equivalent in jogging). There were two categories in between these, and all four levels were compared with people who did little activity at all.

The results showed that, broadly, the more activity people did, the greater the benefits in terms of high blood pressure, diabetes and blood cholesterol levels.

What was particularly interesting, though, was that the results for walking and running were very similar. A given amount of activity – whether running or a longer period of walking which expended the same energy – seemed to result in similar health benefits.

This study offers encouragement to those unable (or unwilling!) to get into higher levels of exercise. And it backs up all the previous research showing that even some physical activity is certainly more beneficial than none.

 

*Link to the study abstract: http://atvb.ahajournals.org/content/early/2013/04/04/ATVBAHA.112.300878.

 

 

It’s striking how many people have signed up at our local leisure centre in the last couple of weeks. But if this year is like previous ones, it’s likely that many will drift away again in the next month or so. Plainly, for many people leisure centres are not the answer to how to keep fit and healthy.

Perhaps January is a good time to look creatively at what we want to achieve and to find ways to increase our everyday activity levels throughout the whole year ahead. Even the simplest ideas can be effective. Finding a new place to park that bit further from work and walking the extra distance every day can make a real difference over time – and it might even save on parking fees. Deciding always to use the stairs rather than the lift is another good idea. It’s always surprising to see how many people wait for a lift to go up just one floor – and even more surprising how many take that lift back down!

Organisations can be creative too. Indeed, one major organisation has found imaginative ways to encourage its employees to use the stairs. First, they programmed lifts to stop only at alternate floors, which meant employees had to plan their lift journeys. Then they made the stairways more inviting with attractive paintwork, good lighting and soft music. People started using the stairs and these became part of the building’s social area. This wasn’t just good for the employees: overall productivity increased.

When thinking about keeping active over the year ahead, those with children – particularly adolescents – may be facing a greater challenge than just motivating themselves. Surveys are showing low levels of activity in many of today’s adolescents, with a lot of time spent watching TV or at the computer studying, networking and playing games. Unfortunately, habits tend to stick: inactive children may end up as inactive adults.

Quite how damaging inactivity can be has been highlighted in a recent interesting study in Sweden*. This followed over 1 million adolescents for 24 years; during this time there were more than 26,000 deaths. The study showed that low muscular strength in adolescence was associated with a substantially increased risk later of heart disease and mental illness.

Of course, such an association does not prove cause and effect: it is not the same as demonstrating that increasing the adolescents’ strength improves their outlook. Such a direct link would be hard to prove conclusively. But other studies, some dating back to the 1980s, have also attested to the benefits – in terms of avoiding illness and living longer – of maintaining fitness levels from adolescence through to later adult life.

January is a great month for thinking about getting active. The key is to remember the other 11 months too.

 

*Link to the study: http://www.bmj.com/content/345/bmj.e7279

 

Anyone over 40 may remember schooldays when young people played entire sports matches with nothing more to drink than a slice of orange at half time. Back then, athletes were often careful not to drink water before competing, for fear it would harm their performance. How things have changed.

Nowadays, keeping ‘hydrated’ is taken seriously at all levels. Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find any place of physical activity without those ever-present water containers and bottles of sports drinks.

But how important is it for our performance and our health to keep hydrated? And how much benefit do sports drinks actually bring us?

A fine piece of investigative journalism by the British Medical Journal has looked at just these questions, scrutinising the science behind the claims. The article (see the link below*) is, for the most part, nontechnical and easy to read, and we recommend it to anyone interested in sport or physical activity.

Their conclusions: The claims for the importance of keeping hydrated during activity and for the benefits of sports drinks are not backed up by strong scientific studies. In fact, they found that much of the science had been financed by the sports drink industry itself. (This does not make the science invalid.)

Take hydration. Evolution has favoured us humans with effective ways to regulate the amount of water in our bodies needed to keep our physical and chemical processes going smoothly in a wide variety of different environments. In general, we know we need to top up on water by the feeling of thirst we get. But in recent years the idea has emerged that we should abandon this feeling of thirst as an indicator and instead simply drink often. To avoid the dangers of ‘dehydration’, we are expected to prime ourselves by drinking before exercise, continue drinking while exercising and then drink substantial amounts after it.

The article challenges the need for this behaviour. What scientific evidence exists is often based on studies that involved relatively small numbers of selected individuals in artificial lab conditions and is not necessarily applicable to everyone or to real-life situations. For children there’s very little evidence indeed. The risks of dehydration during normal exercise are probable overstated: we are able to endure periods of mild dehydration without harm.

(There is, however, evidence that some elderly people lose some of their sensitivity to feeling thirsty and so should drink a little more often than they feel they need to.)

A huge sports drinks industry has grown up marketed on the basis that these drinks help boost performance for us all. Sports drinks certainly have the right balance of minerals and sugar for rehydrating us quickly, and they replace things like the sodium lost in sweat and the sugar burned in our muscles. But how important is this?

The actual evidence underpinning the claimed performance benefits of sports drinks proved difficult to obtain from a couple of the manufacturers, but the authors scrutinised all the evidence that was supplied to them and concluded that it was fairly weak and may not apply to most of us.

There will be situations where people who are exercising very hard or working in high temperatures may need to replace quickly not only water but also the sodium lost in their sweat. But these are not the everyday situations most of us encounter (and many people consume far too much sodium anyway due to the salt in their food).

A bottle of sports drink typically contains 4 to 5 teaspoons of sugar. The authors of the article did not find any good evidence that this is a better way for athletes to get their energy than from their food. For most of us who are keeping an eye on our waistlines, it’s questionable whether consuming sports drinks containing sugars is a sensible strategy.

Sports drinks are classed as ‘foods’ rather than ‘medicines’. Claims made about the benefits of foods do not need to undergo scrutiny in the same way as those about medicines. But that shouldn’t mean there is any less of a need for good evidence, particularly where claims relate to aspects of health.

Until there is strong evidence, you’ll need to make up your own mind about sports drinks. If you are an elite athlete, do what works well for you and your sport. For everyone else, it’s worth reading the article before coming to a judgement. In particular, if you are exercising to reduce your body fat, be especially sure you are not replacing the calories lost by exercising with calories in your sports drink.

 

*Link to the article: http://www.bmj.com/content/345/bmj.e4737

 

Professor Brian Kirby, co-author of How to Live to 110: Your comprehensive guide to a healthy life.

 

Most fitness instructors, coaches, and sports teachers suggest that people warm up and stretch before they exercise. But how effective is this?

In fact, past scientific studies have cast some doubt on the effectiveness of warming up, with little evidence it reduces sports-related injury and even some evidence that stretching can diminish peak performance in activities like sprinting.

But large-scale studies in this area run into a number of potential problems. There is little uniformity in how people warm up and stretch. Important factors such as body weight, fitness and activity level vary greatly from person to person; and the activities they then go on to do could be anything from swimming or football to martial arts or badminton.

In the past year, though, research in this subject has gained impetus and shown some tangible benefits in certain groups. One recent study* showed knee injuries can be reduced in young women footballers. Another** has shown that people who suffer asthma that is brought on by exercise can reduce their need for inhalers with the right type of warm-up. In the martial art taekwondo, warm-up has been shown to reduce the injury rate***.

This evidence is still rather limited, but it does suggest that the common view that warming up helps prevent injury may have some basis. Certainly, many people – including non-athletes – find that activity is more comfortable if they warm-up and stretch beforehand. And there is no evidence to suggest that it is harmful provided it’s done carefully and in line with reputable advice (ideally from a trained coach or fitness instructor).

But don’t depend on warming up and stretching to prevent all injury, of course. Pay attention to technique and safety – even when you are tired – and, as always, there’s a lot to be said for common sense!

*Link to knee injury study   (If you have trouble with this link, search for “Simple Warm-Up Program Prevents Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injuries”)

**Link to asthma study

***Link to taekwondo study

Professor Brian Kirby, Author of How to Live to 110: Your comprehensive guide to a healthy life

 

An interesting new study* provides evidence that it’s better to get up and move around every so often rather than sit still for long periods.

If you work all day sat at a desk or workbench, or spend your evenings sitting in front of a TV, computer or book, this could be an important result.

The study looked at overweight people in the period following a meal. It showed that walking around for a couple of minutes every 20 minutes improved the level of glucose and insulin in their blood, compared with simply sitting still.

The importance of this is that high levels of glucose and insulin over many years can be associated with heart disease, cancer and other diseases. In the shorter term, they make it more likely you will put on body fat, and they make it
harder to lose weight. Ideally, you want them both to return to normal levels as soon as possible after a meal.

It would seem wise for everyone not to sit still for long periods, especially in the hours after a meal. Get up and move around every so often.

An earlier study** has already shown the long-term dangers of sitting still for long periods. It found that people who watch many hours of television a week – and so are sitting still for a long time – are more likely to suffer heart disease and diabetes. The recent study could go some way towards explaining this.

The study really brings home the importance of physical activity for your body. It shows that even occasional light activity such as a two-minute walk can have a positive effect on important processes going on inside you.

Greater amounts of physical activity bring greater benefits, of course. It has long been known that regular physical activity helps prevent heart and blood vessel disease, counter diabetes, reduce the risk of many common cancers and lose body
fat. And that’s just a few amongst many other benefits.

Inactive people could start with ordinary everyday things like walking that bit extra every day, taking the stairs rather than the lift, and asking whether you really need to use the car for short trips. From there, we recommend building
up your exercise to even higher levels – an hour a day in total if you can manage it. This should bring significant benefits to your long-term health.

But, as this study shows, every little helps – and more than you might think!

 

Professor Brian Kirby, author of How to Live to 110: Your comprehensive guide to a healthy life

* The study about getting up and moving: http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/early/2012/02/22/dc11-1931

** The study about sitting in front of TV for long periods: http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/305/23/2448.short

 

 

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