Active for Life: A Call for Action. The Health Benefits of Physical Activity
All New Zealanders can improve their health and quality of life by including regular, moderate amounts of physical activity in their daily lives. The public health message has changed from an emphasis on vigorous activity to moderate-intensity activity for numerous health benefits for the population in general. Additional health benefits can be gained from more vigorous (high intensity) activity for those people who are already active.
New Zealand. National Health Committee (1998). Active for Life: A Call for Action. The Health Benefits of Physical Activity. Wellington, New Zealand: Author.
The National Advisory Committee on Health and Disability (National Health Committee – NHC) advises the Minister of Health on priorities for public funding of health and disability services. The Committee’s advice is based on sound evidence of benefit to the health of the population, has due regard for available resources and takes account of the outcomes valued by users and the type of service provision acceptable to the public. Following the publication of the US Surgeon General’s report on physical activity and health, the National Health Committee proposed to undertake work in this area to advise on the benefits of physical activity and the most effective means of achieving these in New Zealand.
The Committee was particularly interested in how large these benefits might be, who would benefit, who would benefit most from increasing physical activity and what the priorities should be in New Zealand. A workshop was held in December 1997 to bring together people from a wide range of organisations associated with physical activity (policies, programmes and research) to review the evidence of benefit and examine strategies for action. In June 1997, the Minister of Sport, Fitness and Leisure, the Hon Murray McCully, asked the Hillary Commission to form an intersectoral taskforce to develop strategies for increasing participation in physical activity.
The Taskforce reported to the Minister at the end of March 1998. The National Health Committee’s report is intended to provide advice to the Minister of Health on the health benefits of physical activity, as well as to provide supporting evidence for the terms of reference of the National Participation Taskforce through:
• a review of the evidence on the health effects of physical activity
• a review of the evidence for effective intervention strategies, policies and programmes that have been successful in increasing physical activity describing and advising on the magnitude and distribution of the health benefits that can be achieved in New Zealand through increasing physical activity.
While this report focuses on evidence for the prevention of disease rather than the treatment of existing problems or rehabilitation programmes, this in no way diminishes the role of physical activity after disease has developed. It is also important to note that physical activity is one of the many behaviours that affects health. In particular, nutritional habits are linked to some of the same aspects of health as physical activity and the two may have related lifestyle characteristics.
The key findings of the NHC’s report are:
• All New Zealanders can improve their health and quality of life by including regular, moderate amounts of physical activity in their daily lives.
• The public health message has changed from an emphasis on vigorous activity to moderate-intensity activity for numerous health benefits for the population in general. Additional health benefits can be gained from more vigorous (high intensity) activity for those people who are already active.
• The most recent advice from experts is that people of all ages should perform physical activity regularly for better health. This should include a minimum of 30 minutes of physical activity of moderate intensity (such as brisk walking) on most, if not all, days of the week.
• More than one-third (36%) of New Zealand adults can be described as “inactive”, that is they take part in less than 2.5 hours of leisure time physical activity over a week.
• Higher levels of physical activity are associated with lower mortality rates for both older and younger adults. Regular physical activity decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease mortality.
• The level of decreased risk for coronary heart disease from regular physical activity is similar to that of other lifestyle factors, such as not smoking.
• Regular physical activity prevents the development of high blood pressure and reduces blood pressure in people who already have high blood pressure.
• Regular physical activity is associated with a decreased risk of colon cancer.
• Regular physical activity lowers the risk of developing non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus.
• Regular physical activity helps older adults become stronger and better able to move about without falling. Weight-bearing physical activity is essential for normal bone development during childhood and for achieving and maintaining peak bone mass in young adults.
• Regular physical activity relieves the symptoms of depression and anxiety and improves mood.
• The risks associated with physical activity include injuries and cardiovascular events (which are much rarer). Sedentary people should seek advice from their doctor before embarking on an exercise programme.
• Physical activity could be one of the ‘best buys’ in public health in terms of reduced health expenditure, additional years of life gained and improved functional capacity.
• Although the evidence for the effective strategies to promote more active lifestyles is at an early stage of development, there have been some successful campaigns carried out overseas. From these, it is becoming clear that political endorsement of physical activity in our daily lives is needed as a first step. It is also clear that to achieve increased participation there needs to be a collaborative effort from everyone: individuals, communities, government, the commercial and voluntary sectors.
| National Health Committee – NHC. Ministry of Health