6 ways to increase your activity levels to improve heart health

Inactivity is the modern smoking. Although I doubt we will have a smoke free New Zealand by 2025, we have made huge reductions in smoking rates. This has happened through changes to workplaces and public spaces to discourage tobacco use. At the same time, with increased mechanization and computerization we have become less active. We are now seeing the serious health consequences of physical inactivity.

Inactivity a problem from cradle to grave

Occasionally I see people for advice on their children’s health. Recently I saw a family with a child who was very overweight at 18 months.  I referred them on for specialist advice because of other matters but one thing struck me. No one in that family had time for the wee fella to spend tummy time and tottering time. Both parents worked, he was in day-care. He had no regular times where he got encouragement to move his little body.  Everyone was on such a tight schedule.

As a stepmother and a dietitian, I have to tread a fine line around my step kids (skids!) in relation to their eating and activity. The younger one has never heard my rant about her not doing physical activity at school. Why? She  because she “didn’t want to do it.”  I loathed and detested PE.  Even now I get anxious about sport, despite having found a wonderful fitness specialist who has helped me overcome my physical limitations. I even enjoy playing lawn bowls…something I wish had been on the PE curriculum.

At the other end of life, people remark I have amazing parents. They both are  active well into their 80s. They both know that they are either going to use it or lose it and remain active despite aches and pains.

Modern life is pushing us to inactivity. We need to think how to push back.

So what are the activity guidelines.

These changed in 2015 and reflect modern research physical activity.

  • Sit less, move more! Break up long periods of sitting.
  • Do at least 2 ½ hours of moderate or 1 ¼ hours of vigorous physical activity spread throughout the week.
  • For extra health benefits, aim for 5 hours of moderate or 2 ½ hours of vigorous physical activity spread throughout the week.
  • Do muscle strengthening activities on at least 2 days each week.
  • Doing some physical activity is better than doing none.

Terminology Explained

Moderate activity means moving so you have an elevated heart rate. You feel warm but you can speak in sentences. As you get fitter your capacity to exercise moderately will increase.  You will need to increase either the intensity or duration to get the same benefits.

Vigorous activity means activity with a heart rate close to your maximum capacity. You will feel hot and be unable to talk in sentences.

Muscle strengthening means using your body to resist gravity. It includes things like carrying items and lifting things. The most obvious non-strength building activity is cycling.

2 ½ hours represents 30 minutes 5x per week. You can do this in one or two bursts of activity each week. If you do it will have less cardiovascular health benefit.

5 hours represents 60 minutes 5x per week.  This is the guideline for children and young people. This means we need to encourage movement at home as well as at school. Play can be active.

Reducing inactivity means trying to avoid sitting for more than 25 minutes in each half hour. Aim to get up and move  for 5 minutes.

Many people, because of pain, physical disability or lack of fitness will not even try.  For them trying is important = doing some is better than none.

So how do we start being active more often.

My top hints

  1. If you use a computer for work or leisure use a pomodoro timer
  2. Look at active transport to work – 10 minutes twice a day of walking to and from the bus will add up
  3. Have a ½ hour screen free time after dinner for everyone to do something active, even if it is the housework!
  4. Find some activity you can tolerate, if not love to do. I tolerate going to the gym. I love playing lawn bowls. And it doesn’t have to have a cost – walking, dancing to music, playing with the kids are all free.
  5. Try to avoid short trips by car. If a trip is less than 10 minutes by car it is walkable.
  6. If you have pain or a health concern reducing your activity speak to your GP to find out what is best for you. Most joint pain will improve with physical activity.

Physical activity the cardiovascular benefits

Blood pressure: regular physical activity reduces blood pressure and strengthens the heart’s pumping mechanism.

Cholesterol: Activity meeting the guidelines will reduce LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol

Blood glucose: Physical activity reduces insulin resistance and lowers blood glucose

Stress reduction: Physical activity reduces psychological stress and distress.

Workplaces can have policy to help people maintain physical activity. The most important thing a workplace can do is recognise the importance of reducing inactivity and make it possible for people to get up and move. Even if jobs are active you can reduce the risk of injury by activity rotation and having regular breaks for movement .

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