‘Age is only a number’ is something most of us have heard or said at some point, and while often only meant in jest, we’ve never had so much evidence to back up the truth of it. As our understanding of the differences between chronological and biological age has grown in recent years, and research on epigenetics expands – we are starting to appreciate now more than ever, that how we feel and function does not have to be defined by our age, certainly not to the extent it used to be. Bronzed octogenarians jogging the coastal paths of Gran Canarias at 7am in the morning are living testimony to this!
Of course, decline is eventually inevitable, even the healthiest and luckiest of people are confronted by the harsh reality of physical deterioration. However, it’s becoming very clear that the rate of that decline varies, and in some cases, drastically. While many factors come into play, from HOW a person lives (lifestyle) to WHY they live (sense of meaning and purpose) and WHERE they live (Blue Zones Research), regular physical activity stands out as a key player in staying youthful and maintaining that spring in your step. In fact, research shows that people with low levels of activity have a 20-30% increased risk of all-cause mortality. The many health benefits of exercise are increasingly documented, and it is widely hailed as a magic bullet against many chronic diseases from cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disorders, metabolic illnesses such as Type II diabetes, to name but a few.
These benefits are so far ranging that the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued official physical activity guidelines to optimise personal health and wellbeing. In the latest edition updated in 2020, recommendations were published for specific demographics – from people with disabilities, chronic health issues, pregnant and post-partum to differing age categories. While exercise has a host of benefits – there are associated risks and considerations that depend on personal circumstances. The WHO ‘Every Move Counts’ promotion campaign illustrates the relationship between volume of physical activity and health, and it may come as a surprise to some that there is an increase in risk and potential harm above the recommended range. Some individuals are of course very athletic and highly active by nature, so this is not to be interpreted that over the recommended range is ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ – but rather to reaffirm, that like most things, exercise has an optimal window – and beyond a certain point, more is not always better. This increase can be due to higher risk of injury associated with over-training, impact sports or adventure pursuits.
For this reason, it’s worth learning more about the current recommendations and consider your personal circumstances in order to reap the life enhancing benefits and minimise risk of harm. While the following WHO guidelines are based upon age categories, to recall the opening sentiments, this does not have to be absolute or definitive, but best serves as a useful reference.
For children under 5 years of age
Comprehensive guidelines are provided on optimal play time, restraint (e.g. time in prams/ strollers), sleep and screen exposure for infants (under 1 year), 2-3 year olds and 4-5 year olds. For more information find a detailed breakdown of recommendations here; World Health Organization. Guidelines on physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep for children under 5 years of age.
Children and adolescents aged 5-17 years
Spend at least an average of 60 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous intensity, mostly aerobic, physical activity, across the week. Incorporate vigorous-intensity aerobic activities, as well as those that strengthen muscle and bone, at least 3 days a week. Limit the amount of time spent being sedentary, particularly the amount of recreational screen time.
Adults aged 18–64 years
At least 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity; or at least 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity; OR an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity throughout the week. Muscle-strengthening activities at moderate or greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week, as these provide additional health benefits. Increase moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity to more than 300 minutes; or do more than 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity for additional health benefits. Limit the amount of time spent being sedentary, replacing sedentary time with physical activity of any intensity (including light intensity) provides health benefits, and to help reduce the detrimental effects of high levels of sedentary behaviour on health, do more than the recommended levels of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity.
Adults aged 65 years and above
Add varied multicomponent physical activity that emphasises functional balance and strength training at moderate or greater intensity, on 3 or more days a week, to enhance functional capacity and to prevent falls.
The WHO global status report on Physical Activity (2022) reported more than 80% of the world’s adolescent population is insufficiently physically active. Among adults, figures vary – however according to a Healthy Ireland survey in 2019 approximately 46% of Irish adults met the current guidelines. While it appears that many adults meet the aerobic guidelines, numbers engaging in regular strength training plummet as age category increases. Older adults have much to gain from adding in resistance training to their weekly routine in terms of staving off the reduction in bone mass density and muscle loss – promoting functional fitness and longevity.
However, for some people these guidelines may feel overwhelming, especially anyone who currently engages in little or no exercise. The key here is to not feel burdened by a sense of obligation to meet these recommendations, but rather the invitation is to recognise that there is mounting evidence of the benefits of weaving more movement into your daily life – so just start where you are, any additional movement will be beneficial and allow yourself to build up progressively. It is important to find movement you enjoy and that appeals to you, and to be creative – that is the real secret to success! Often exercise can be immediately associated with the gym or running, both of which can be intimidating or not very enjoyable for many people – but movement is so broad and there really is something for everyone, from dance, to sport, to gentle stretching, outdoor hiking and so much more.
So be bold and explore, get experimental – and above all else, remember it’s never too late to start something new! Explore our broad range of physical health trainings that are created to kick start employees fitness goals and introduce exercise into their lives in the correct and safe way.