The importance of keeping active, even over winter!

At this time of year, I often see an increase in injuries resulting from physical inactivity. It’s cold and dark outside, and it’s not as easy to find the time (or motivation) to use our bodies the same way we do in the warmer months. I frequently get clients presenting with seemingly unexplained discomfort like back pain or knee stiffness, and after some questioning often discover that frequency of regular activity (walking or bike riding for example) has been recently reduced.

A low level or reduction of physical activity means that our muscles and joints do not get the exposure to movement and load that they should. This leaves us more susceptible to injury, aches and pains. We need to be more considerate of our body’s requirements for movement and exercise, and start to look at physical activity the same way we look at brushing our teeth; not an optional extra when we find the time, but something that must be done daily to keep our body in good condition.

The current physical activity guidelines for adults recommend partaking in 150-300 minutes of moderate exercise, or 75-150 minutes of vigorous exercise each week. This equates to a minimum requirement of 30 minutes of moderate exercise, performed five times each week. Adults performing less activity than this each week are considered by the World Health organisation to be “Physically Inactive”.

To put things into perspective, Physical Inactivity has been identified as the fourth leading risk factor for death worldwide. In Australia, Physical Inactivity is the second biggest contributor (behind tobacco smoking) to the cancer burden, with particularly strong evidence for its contribution to some types of colon and breast cancers. In contrast, regular activity or exercise has been found to significantly lower the risks of early death, heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. In addition to a higher health related quality of life, several recent studies in adults have found higher levels of physical activity to be associated with reduced levels of pain and disability.

So what do we do with this information? Health care practitioners can give you the facts, but this is often ineffective in promoting behaviour change. My advice is to consider what will be realistic for you. What changes do you think you will be able to make and when can you make them? Routine is important. Being realistic with your goals and choosing activities that are convenient and enjoyable will help you to be more consistent with your chosen physical activity.

Physical activity should be tailored to the individual. Factors to be considered in deciding which form of physical activity is right for you include: your current level of physical fitness, any medical issues you may have, preferred physical activity type, access to recreational facilities and time available for physical activity. Exercise need not be exhausting, and should not be painful. Known benefits to physical and mental health are extensive, so if you currently fall into the “Physically Inactive” category you should prioritise speaking with a health professional about the best form of activity for you. Finding some form of activity that can be performed indoors, such as pool-based exercise, gym or Pilates classes, or a tailored program that can be performed at home may be a good way of minimising the effects of inactivity over winter.