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The Power of Physical Activity for Preventing and Managing Long-Term Conditions

CEO Tinh Phung
Regular physical activity has long been recognized as a key factor in maintaining good health and reducing the risk of chronic illnesses. In the "Health Matters" series, we explore the latest research and insights on...

Regular physical activity has long been recognized as a key factor in maintaining good health and reducing the risk of chronic illnesses. In the "Health Matters" series, we explore the latest research and insights on the benefits of physical activity for preventing and managing long-term conditions in adults.

The Government's Ambition

The UK government's prevention green paper emphasizes the importance of physical activity for both our physical and mental health. The aim is to get everybody active in the 2020s, including individuals already living with a health condition. This is crucial as one in three adults in England are affected by long-term health conditions, and they are twice as likely to be inactive.

However, numerous studies have shown that regular physical activity can play a significant role in preventing and managing common conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers. It not only helps control symptoms but also prevents the development of additional conditions and reduces inequalities.

The Health Benefits of Physical Activity

The new UK Chief Medical Officers' (CMOs) physical activity guidelines, launched in September 2019, have reiterated the profound impact of physical activity on overall health. The CMOs state that if physical activity were a drug, it would be considered a miracle cure due to its ability to prevent and treat various illnesses.

Regular physical activity offers a wide range of physical, mental, and social benefits, including reducing the risk of long-term conditions, managing existing conditions, ensuring musculoskeletal health, promoting independence, supporting social inclusion, helping maintain a healthy weight, and reducing inequalities among individuals with long-term conditions.

Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults

To achieve good physical and mental health, adults should strive to be physically active every day, according to the updated UK CMOs' guidelines. The guidelines highlight three key elements:

  1. Strengthening Activity: Adults should engage in activities to develop and maintain strength in major muscle groups, aiming for at least two sessions per week.
  2. Cardiovascular Activity: Each week, adults should accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, or a combination of both.
  3. Sedentary Time: Adults should minimize sedentary behavior and break up long periods of inactivity with light physical activity whenever possible.

Overcoming Barriers: Strengthening and Balancing

While the benefits of cardiovascular activity are well-known, the guidelines also emphasize the importance of strengthening activity. Often referred to as the "forgotten guidelines," these recommendations highlight the need for adults to engage in activities that strengthen major muscle groups. Such exercises should be performed at least twice a week, as any strengthening activity is better than none.

Additionally, the guidelines stress the additional benefits of balance and flexibility exercises for older adults. These exercises can help improve muscle strength, balance, coordination, and flexibility, thereby reducing the risk of falls and maintaining function throughout life.

Impact on Long-Term Conditions

In England, 15 million people live with one or more long-term health conditions. Since the publication of the 2011 physical activity guidelines, the evidence supporting the health benefits of regular physical activity for all groups, including those with long-term conditions, has become increasingly compelling.

Regular physical activity has been shown to reduce the risk of various diseases, including some cancers and dementia. It can also help prevent and manage many common chronic conditions, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, mental health conditions, and musculoskeletal conditions. Physical activity often produces outcomes similar to or better than drug treatments for these conditions, with a lower risk of adverse effects.

Despite these benefits, many people with long-term conditions face internal and external barriers that prevent them from engaging in physical activity. Internal barriers include pain, fatigue, and lack of motivation, while external barriers can be practical or logistical. It is essential to address these barriers and provide support and guidance to individuals with long-term conditions, as the majority express a desire to be more active.

Bridging the Gap: Healthcare Professionals and Local Authorities

Healthcare professionals play a critical role in promoting physical activity and supporting individuals with long-term conditions. By increasing their knowledge and incorporating physical activity discussions and advice into routine care, healthcare professionals can empower their patients to become more physically active and improve their overall health and quality of life. There are resources available, such as the Moving Healthcare Professionals Programme and e-learning courses, that provide training and guidance.

Local authorities also have a significant role to play in promoting physical activity at a community level. They should adopt a whole systems approach, collaborating with various organizations and groups to create an environment that supports physical activity. Through investments in infrastructure, community programs, and social prescribing initiatives, local authorities can help make physical activity accessible and enjoyable for all.

Join the Movement: Everybody Active, Every Day

The Everybody Active, Every Day initiative, co-produced with over 1,000 local and national stakeholders, provides a national physical activity framework for action against the physical inactivity epidemic. The framework spans four domains: active society, moving professionals, active environments, and moving at scale. By focusing on these domains, we can create a social movement, activate networks of expertise, create the right spaces, and implement interventions that promote physical activity.

Conclusion

Physical activity is a powerful tool for preventing and managing long-term conditions in adults. It offers a wide range of health benefits, including reducing the risk of chronic diseases, managing symptoms, and enhancing overall well-being. Health professionals and local authorities play vital roles in promoting physical activity and creating an environment that supports active living.

By working together and prioritizing physical activity, we can make a significant impact on the health and well-being of individuals, communities, and society as a whole. Let's take a proactive approach and embrace the power of physical activity for a healthier future.

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