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Is 15 minutes of exercise each day setting the health bar too low?

Article by  Anne Elliott

We know that the recommended minimum amount of physical activity for an adult is 30 minute of moderately intense activity, 5 days a week. These recommendations are expounded by all of the world’s major health institutions such as the World Health Organisation, American College of Sports Medicine, the British Medical Association and our Department of Health. Bearing in mind there are 1440 minutes in each day, most people are awake for 720 of them. To be active for 30 minutes of the 720 doesn’t sound like so much. Unfortunately, we find that even this cannot be achieved by many of us. 57% of all women aged 40-60 are obese (NHS 2009). A significant reason for the rise in obesity is our leisure and work lifestyle changes. We sit at desks much more, we sit in front of the TV for longer, we have houses full of labour saving devices that do the physically hard work of housework for us. Our parents and grandparents had to do a lot more physical activity just to get through a day. Because we are not forced into daily manual labour we must decide to stay fit and healthy by our choice of leisure pursuits.

Boost life expectancy by 3 years

This week it was reported in the national press that research had found that ‘Just 15 minutes exercise a day can boost life expectancy by three years and cut death risk by 14%’ (BBC News 16/8/11). It reported England’s Chief Medical Officer said that doing a little bit of physical activity each day can bring health benefits and a sedentary lifestyle carries additional risks.

I completely agree with her. Those of you who read me regularly will know that one of my mantras is little and often and I’m the first one to say something is better than nothing. Nevertheless, I have a sense of disquiet. I think it comes from what already was quite a low baseline of 30 minutes activity is now halved to 15. Because it comes with the best of official intentions to get people up and moving, it will be heard. I worry that there will be many sedentary people that do not see it as the instigator for health but as an excuse to do as little as possible. 15 minutes a day is a walk to the shops and back but does that count as exercise if walking to the shop is part of your existing routine? I would say no.

Are we handing people excuses not to exercise?

If you’ve ever talked to someone very overweight you will know that there are as many excuses as to why they have not tackled their weight problem as there are people. It seems to be the nature of us to find excuses for anything we do not want to deal with, so I worry that this interesting research might not produce the effects it is hoped for and instead hands people a jolly good excuse on a plate.

Lifestyle change is a positive decision. We move from seeing ourselves as people who don’t do exercise to people who do and exercise is not a dirty word because it is synonymous with being fit and healthy. This becomes a part of our identities, about ‘who we are’. I am a fit and healthy person and I do x minutes of exercise a day. So if you’ve made that decision to be a fit and healthy person I applaud you. I hope that whatever form of exercise or physical activity you have chosen will not only bring health benefits but is a fun and stimulating way of using your time and the more the merrier.

Photo credit: Simon Howden


ANNE ELLIOTT is 52. She has a Personal Training Practice that specialises in working with middle-aged clients and their associated health problems. She lectures in Sports Science at Middlesex University, is an ABAE boxing referee, is registered with REPS at Level 4 and is undertaking a Doctorate in exercise in middle age. Anne appears regularly in the media talking about her specialisation - exercise in middle age.

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  1. Patti Winker

    August 18, 2011

    Yes. And I quote you here; “I worry that there will be many sedentary people that do not see it as the instigator for health but as an excuse to do as little as possible.”

    That is EXACTLY what I thought of when I started reading. Okay, yes, it’s great to encourage the laziest of us to get off our butts and move, but really? How is 15 minutes going to turn a life around? And that’s what fitness and exercise is all about… feeling better about yourself and how you’re treating yourself AND getting healthy in the process.

    The study’s announcement may have done more harm than good.

  2. FionaOutdoors

    September 5, 2011

    For some people it’s not about the exercising but about being embarrassed to be seen by others exercising. if you’ve not been to the gym for 20 years these places are intimidating. There are a few classes for over-50s but one place I’d recommend is on-line fitness video website ThinqFitness. This lets you choose fitness classes and sessions that you can do in the comfort and secrecy of your own home. It has kickstarted my own mum’s exercise regime and several of my friends.

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