Don’t look down on the importance of daily physical activity, as it plays a crucial role in our health and wellbeing. There are many physical, as well as psychological benefits of daily physical activity. But do we know what is physical activity, and can we differentiate physical activity that can bring us health benefits?
A simple way to define physical activity is any bodily movement produced by our body’s muscles that requires the use of energy. These can be movements during leisure time, for transportation, or as part of work requirements. We can measure how much physical activity we have done by measuring the frequency (usually on a weekly basis), duration and intensity of our activities. Not all physical activities are equally beneficial to our health. However, before we start on what kind of physical activities can contribute to our good health, lets’ look at why physical activity is important.
Why it’s important to get active?
Malaysia has been ranked as the most obese country in Southeast Asia. The most recent National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS 2019)1 reported that 1-in-2 Malaysian adults are overweight or obese, and these statistics has been on a rising trend since NHMS 2011.
The main reasons for this upward trend are that the majority of Malaysians lead an inactive lifestyle, which is one of the major contributing factors for obesity. The 2019 NHMS study found that 1-in-4 Malaysian adults are physically inactive. We would expect the prevalence of overweight and obesity in Malaysia to increase further and in a larger proportion due to the intermittent and prolonged movement control order (MCO) enforced throughout Malaysia in the last one and half years. Therefore, it is especially important for us to be creative in ways we can make ourself more active throughout the day.
Physical activity has both physical and psychological benefits. Apart from strong evidence showing that physical activity is associated with reduced risk in many non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and certain cancers, a recent study also found that the lack of physical activity was linked with a poorer outcome if infected with COVID-19. The study showed that physical inactivity increases the risk of hospitalisation (more than double the risk), admission to ICU (almost double the risk), and even death (almost two and a half times the risk) among those tested positive for COVID-19 in the US.2 Physical activity has also been associated with positive psychological well-being, such as greater levels of life satisfaction, increased quality of life outcomes and increased happiness.
We should strive to be active regardless of our age as all age groups can reap the benefits of being active. However, where should we start? What should we do?
Physical activity guidelines at a glance and how to achieve
For the general adult population, do aim to engage in moderate- to high-intensity physical activity for 150-300 minutes, over 5 or more days a week, the more the better. If you prefer to do vigorous-intensity physical activity, do aim for 75-150 minutes, over 5 or more days a week, the more the better.3 For children and teenagers, try to aim for at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity everyday.3
So, how do we achieve this? We can achieve this by doing many different types of activities, like walking on a treadmill or workout on a stationary bike at home, sit-up, push-ups, or any other physical activity that you can easily do at home, such as follow along an exercise session on YouTube (pstt… its free!)
Physical activity is misunderstood
If you are still not convinced, this may be due to you having some negative (and not true) believes about physical activity. Many people do at some level, understand and acknowledge that physical activity is essential for health. However, some health myths or misunderstanding may be the cause for many to put off being physically active. We try to address some of the myths here, and hopefully help you along your way to be active and healthy!
- Myth 1: Working out should be painful to be effective, i.e., no pain no gain
There is no need to force yourself into a painful fitness regime in order to experience greater health and fitness. If you experience pain after your last bout of physical activity, then try easing up on the intensity, which means, run slower, take less weight or simply cut your exercise time shorter. When starting a new exercise program or physical activity routine, start at a lower intensity and work your way up. Don’t overdo it or you may end up hurting yourself and become demotivated to continue on your new program/lifestyle. However, while you are getting to know your body, you may find yourself very tired or some form of muscle soreness after your exercise. Don’t worry, take the next day or two off to rest and start again when you feel better. The key is to take it slowly but make it consistent.
- Myth 2: Exercising means joining a gym and using weights
While working out with weights does have its place, it is not the only way to exercise or getting your dose of beneficial physical activity. Remember, the goal of being physically active is to move more and elevating both your breathing and heart rate. We can achieve this through all types of activities, including mopping the floor just that little bit harder and longer, to simply walking up and down the stairs.
- Myth 3: Reducing sedentary behaviour isn’t enough to improve one’s physical fitness
When it comes to physical activity, every little bit counts towards your health. Be as active as you can throughout the day. For example, if you can stand, don’t sit; if you can walk, don’t stand/sit. We can be active even under movement control order. For example, stand while working from home / doing schoolwork (be mindful of your posture, make sure to stack-up so you can stand straight); make sure your snacks are far from your workstation so that you need to get up and walk to get your snack. Think of creative ways to get yourself moving throughout the day.
- Myth 4: Sweating is a must to count as doing physical activity
The main purpose of being physically active is to move your body and raise your heart rate. Sweating serves to cool your body down when it heats up after being physically active.
Tips to get you moving
If you are just starting to embark on becoming more physically active, here are some tips to help you get started:
- Start slowly: Build your routine up gradually. For instance, you can start with a short 10 minute walk daily until you get used to it before increasing it gradually. Aim for at least three walks per week.
- Warm up & cool down: spend a few minutes to warm up before starting your walk and a few minutes to cool down your body after your walk is over. Warming up helps bring your body ‘up to speed’ thus lowering the risk of injury, while cooling down helps prepare your body to go gradually go back to its normal resting state.
- Pace yourself: walk at brisk pace! The idea is to get both your breathing and heart rate up so leisurely walks are out of the question! Swing your arms and keep your back straight. Feel free to add extra motions by swinging your arms or swivelling your torso from time to time. Try to keep your legs loose and limber and avoid stomping your feet (your steps should be in a rolling movement starting from heel up to the toe).
- Dress right: Wear comfortable clothes and shoes with socks. Sensible, comfortable and lightweight shoes with support are best. If you walk when it’s dark (e.g., at/before dawn or at night), consider wearing reflective clothing or invest in safety LED (i.e., blinking LED armbands or anklets) to allow road users/drivers to easily spot you in the dark.
- Stay hydrated: make sure you drink enough water before and after your walk. Bring some water along in case you get thirsty as you walk, especially if the weather is hot. On another note, avoid going for strenuous walks immediately after large meals.
It’s up to you now!
You now have all the information and tips that you need to get moving and be active even during this time of movement control. It won’t be easy at first, but once you start getting used to it, it will become easier and you will find you can do the same activities with less effort. This means it’s time to increase the intensity of your activities. However, if you have any medical condition, please always consult with your doctor first before starting on any exercise program. This is to ensure that you can become physically active in a safe manner.
So, what are you waiting for? Let’s get moving!
This article is contributed by Nutrition Month Malaysia (NMM) 2021, an annual community nutrition education initiative jointly organised by Nutrition Society of Malaysia (NSM), the Malaysian Dietitians’ Association (MDA) and the Malaysian Association for the Study of Obesity (MASO).
1 Institute for Public Health (IPH) (2020). National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) 2019: Non-communicable diseases, healthcare demand, and health literacy. Volume I: NCDs – Non-communicable diseases: risk factors and other health problems. IPH, Shah Alam.
2 Robert S, Deborah RY, Sara YT, James FS, Jeevan S, Li QW, Gary NS & Deborah AC (2021). Physical inactivity is associated with a higher risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes: a study in 48 440 adult patients. British Journal of Sports Medicine 0:1–8. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2021-104080
3 Bull FC, Al-Ansari SS, Biddle S, Borodulin K, Buman MP, Cardon G, Carty C, … Willumsen JF (2020). World Health Organization 2020 guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour. British Journal of Sports Medicine 54:1451-1462. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2020-102955