Physical activity can act like medicine – What would increase our activity?

Research has shown that even brief spells of physical activity boost health. Researcher Riikka Kivelä, Docent of Physiology, explains how to easily add exercise to your everyday life and what kind of policies society could use to encourage physically active lifestyles.

Protection against cardiovascular diseases, a host of cancers, disorders of the cerebral circulation, memory disorders, diabetes, excess weight, certain mental disorders – the list of exercise-related health benefits evidenced by research is long. Physical activity prevents many diseases and is also an effective form of treatment for some. It increases healthy years of life and decreases the risk of premature death.

Research also indicates that people have a good understanding of the usefulness of physical activity to their wellbeing.

“Almost everyone knows this,” says Riikka Kivelä, Docent of Physiology at the University of Helsinki and Associate Professor at the University of Jyväskylä.

According to Kivelä, people often consider a lack of time as the biggest obstacle to embarking on or increasing physical activity, or to figuring out how to include exercise in their everyday lives.

Even a little bit at a time helps

Kivelä points out that the physical activity recommendations of the UKK Institute – Centre for Health Promotion Research updated in 2021 are suited to most Finns. The recommendations are based on extensive global studies.

“The recommendation is either two and a half hours of moderate physical activity or one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week accompanied by muscle strengthening and balance activities twice per week,” Kivelä says.

“If you can manage that, the benefits of your activity are likely fairly high.”

According to recent research, exercise is beneficial even in brief spells.

“The encouraging message is that you don’t have to go for a run every time. Instead, the required physical activity can be accumulated piecemeal and as part of your day-to-day life.”

The recommended amount of physical activity can be accumulated during the day, for example, by walking to the bus stop, taking the stairs instead of the lift or the escalator, or by cycling to work. Strength training too can constitute chopping wood and raking, while dancing can serve as endurance training.

However, Kivelä also urges people to dare to challenge themselves at times to sweat it out and get out of breath.

“You get greater health benefits immediately by straining yourself in your discomfort zone. Most people also feel pretty good afterwards.”

While physical activity in childhood or adolescence can protect against diseases later in life, Kivelä notes that it is never too late to start exercising. Physical activity initiated even in middle age or after retirement can greatly influence quality of life in old age.

“Strength training studies have shown that strength and functional capacity increase even in octogenarians.”

Physical activity must be made pleasant and easy

“Physical inactivity costs society billions each year,” Kivelä says.

The costs are accumulated, for example, from absences due to illness, a decline in fitness for work and healthcare expenses.

According to Kivelä, society and policymakers can influence people’s physical activity, for example, by facilitating choices that encourage them to exercise.

“It starts from urban planning in the form of functional pedestrian and bicycle paths that are ploughed in the winter so that using them is pleasant.”

Recently, the promotion of physically active lifestyles has been highlighted also in the ongoing government formation talks.

“I would like to see physical activity as a part of almost all administrative sectors in the new government programme, instead of remaining solely the remit of the Ministry of Education and Culture. Following that, we would consider common ways of promoting activity.”