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Brits in need of a body boost
7:00am Saturday 4th August 2012 in Health
As new research shows lack of exercise is as deadly as smoking, experts discuss the best ways to incorporate physical activity into busy lives, and how Olympic inspiration might help to drag the UK's couch potatoes off the sofa.
By Lisa Salmon
Is sitting and watching the super-fit athletes at the Olympics making you feel like a couch potato?
Chances are it will be - especially if you're one of the two thirds of the population not getting any regular exercise.
New research highlights the shocking extent of Britain's inactivity, and the deadly health repercussions.
The study, which looked at activity levels worldwide, led by Dr I-Min Lee of Harvard Medical School, suggests that lack of exercise claims more than 90,000 lives in the UK each year, as a result of illnesses including heart disease, breast and bowel cancer and diabetes.
The death toll is only slightly lower than that for smoking, which is responsible for around 100,000 British deaths annually.
The minimum amount of exercise recommended by the NHS is two-and-a-half hours a week but, if the findings are correct, most of us aren't even achieving that.
EVvery little helps
If two-and-a-half hours a week sounds too ambitious, don't let that put you off trying altogether.
As Dr Lee points out, any physical activity is better than none. "Even if 15 minutes a day is all that can be managed, that's good," she says.
There are many complex factors that prevent people from being active, Dr Lee notes, including lack of time or confidence, unfriendly surroundings (such as lack of bike lanes or nearby parks) and bad weather.
"Some people don't realise that many actions count as physical activity - walking the dog, playing with your children, walking or cycling to work - and so they don't maximise this," she explains.
Dr Lee suggests that people should take the stairs instead of lifts, take as many opportunities to walk during the day - instead of just hopping in the car - and do some gardening.
"I think it would help to change our mindset so we don't think of activity as a chore or a bore, but simply a fact of daily life."
Big events like the Olympics are fantastic for boosting everybody's enthusiasm for participating in sports.
But, as Stuart Biddle, a professor of physical activity and health at Loughborough University, points out, the effects can be short-lived. Enthusiasm levels can start to dwindle as soon as the medals are handed out, and in the past the Olympics hasn't prompted higher levels of physical activity in host countries.
But London 2012 has put a huge focus on the Olympic legacy, and it's hoped that new initiatives, including school sports programmes like Change4Life sport clubs, will ensure participation levels don't drop.
As inspirational as the Olympics is, thinking about doing more exercise, and actually doing it, are two different things, and for lots of people it's a case of struggling to find the time.
However, research has shown that the physically active have no more time then those who are inactive, says Biddle.
"It's a perception more than a reality, and probably reflects lack of interest, or having other priorities," he says.
The way to deal with this, he says, is to change your mindset, and perhaps ask a friend to commit to exercise too, so you can encourage each other.
The NHS recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity such as cycling or fast walking every week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity such as running every week.
An equivalent mix of moderate and vigorous aerobic activity (for example two 30-minute runs plus 30 minutes fast walking a week) also meets the recommendations.
It's also important to plan exercise - make the decision to walk or cycle home from work, for example.
"Work it into your day so time is less of a factor," says Biddle. "You're going to have to travel home from work anyway, so try and make doing that active, if you can.
"Even a 10-minute stroll every day is better than nothing."
Too much effort
Going to the gym and pounding away on the treadmill requires a lot of physical effort, which Biddle acknowledges can be off-putting for many people.
"Some people perceive exercise quite negatively - but if you make the effort, you feel great for it," he says.
Gyms aren't for everybody - but there are plenty of other ways to be active.
"Previous generations were much more active than we are, and they got their exercise through walking, cycling and being physically active at work," says Biddle. "Unfortunately, we've lost most of that."
If you don't fancy the gym, try something you will enjoy, like gardening, he suggests, or exercise with other people so the social buzz makes it more enjoyable.
Aches and pains
Some people avoid exercise because they don't like the idea of being in pain, both during and after working out. This fear - whether real or imagined - can be a key factor in preventing people being active.
But Biddle points out that a specialist will be able to advise which exercises will be best for you.
Personal trainers are experienced in knowing what types of activities certain people should avoid, or do more of. This is especially important for people with existing medical conditions, such as muscular or arthritic problems for instance, or people recovering from injuries.
But even if you do have pre-existing physical problems, it doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't exercise. In fact being active can be crucial to your recovery or long-term management of your condition - it's just a case of ensuring you're doing the right type of exercise.
Low-impact activities, such as swimming, are great exercise but with minimal risk of physical strain.
"There are conditions that may limit how much you can do, but if you get advice, you'll be able to improve your condition.
"Exercise is medicine," Biddle stresses.
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