“All parts of the body which have a function, if used in moderation and exercised in labours in which each is accustomed become thereby healthy, well developed and age more slowly, but if unused and left idle they become liable to disease, defective in growth and age quickly.” Hippocrates Circa 450 BC

For more than two thousand years people have known that regular physical activity is needed to live a healthy life. Unfortunately, most people today pay more attention to the maintenance of their cars than they do their own body.

This is not to say it is a person’s own fault for not being active. We live in a society whereby we look to technology to make any physical labour easier. Over decades we have engineered activity out of our daily lives through automation such that we now need to take some of our leisure time to be physically active. So we are faced with the irony in which we have systematically engineered regular activity out of much of our daily lives such that we have to go out and make time to be active. This was unheard of more than 60 years ago as many people were sufficiently active in their daily lives whether it be work duties or household chores.

Physical activity can be defined as any bodily movement by our muscles. From the perspective of maintaining and improving health, physical activity can include things such as walking, gardening, house chores and many other activities of daily life. Exercise, is a subset of physical activity, which refers to a purposeful period of physical activity designed to improve one’s fitness. Both physical activity and exercise have a role to play in our health, and should be part of everyone’s routine.

Despite Hippocrates realizing the benefits of an active lifestyle, it wasn’t until the 1950s when the benefits of physical activity was proven. One of the earliest studies found that bus conductors who would walk up and down the stairs of double-decker buses in England collecting tickets had less heart disease than the bus drivers who sat all day. Other studies in the following 20 years confirmed these findings that people working in more active occupations had less heart disease and lived longer.

In the 1970s and 1980s simple studies indicated that the number of blocks walked or flights of stairs climbed was associated with how long people remained healthy and free of disease. Later studies demonstrated that even in people with diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, being regularly active can help with recovery and long-term care. In fact, physical activity is likely the most cost effective method for the prevention and treatment of many of the major diseases that afflict our societies today like heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer, depression, etc.

When we are physically more active, we are training our bodies to become more efficient. For all our activities we rely on oxygen carried in our blood to help us burn energy. By being active our heart and lungs become stronger allowing for more oxygen to get into the blood stream and pumped out to the muscles. Our muscles are able to use more of the oxygen as they adapt to being more active. As a result, we are able to use more fats and sugars for energy, and our blood pressure goes down during rest. In the end, our bodies are better able to handle extra physical and mental stresses that arise during our lives and we feel stronger and healthier.

The current guidelines for physical recommend that we are physically active for 30 or more minutes on most days of the week, which equates to only 150 minutes or so per week. However, many people do not meet this threshold; worldwide, one in three people do not meet these guidelines. The World Health Organization estimates that being physically inactive (not meeting the guidelines) is the fourth leading risk factor for global deaths, accounting for over 3 million premature deaths annually. All of these deaths could be prevented if everyone was active at least for 150 minutes per week. Being active for 30 minutes per day is a great start to improving health and feeling better.

In the next blog I will discuss how much activity is needed to start.

This is Part 1 in a series of blog posts entitled Being Active While Living an Active Life.