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Exercise is better together

by Rosanna Galvin

Couple jogging on the beach.Taking the dog or kids to the park, playing soccer with mates or a sunset stroll along the beach with a loved one – these types of exercises are actually better for your health, according to UniSA’s Professor Timothy Olds (pictured below).

While all forms of exercise provide health benefits, it’s exercising with other people or animals - preferably outdoors - that will have the maximum impact on your health. And it all comes down to stress reduction, Prof Old says.

“Any form of physical activity is going to decrease your risk of cardiovascular mortality,” he says.

“But some domains of physical activity are more effective than others. Physical activity in the leisure domain – sport, playing with kids - has a much greater ability to reduce cardiovascular mortality than occupational physical activity, which is undertaken as part of your job or a chore.

“Exercise can provide a range of psychological benefits including reducing depression and stress. But studies show occupational physical activity has no impact, or even a negative impact, on the psychological benefits, while leisure time physical activity has very positive effects.

“It’s not just physical activity itself. The context of physical activity and the domain of where it takes place both need to be taken into account.”

At the heart of this research is the link between stress and a range of lifestyles diseases. Prof Olds says stress creates chronic low grade inflammation which can lead to ailments including obesity, lower back pain and cardiovascular diseases.

Professor Timothy Olds.Prof Olds speculates that exercising outdoors with friends, family or pets may be one way to reduce that inflammation and in turn improve health outcomes in Australia.

“I suspect the mechanism behind it all is stress. In recent years, we have found that low grade inflammation is at the centre of a whole range of lifestyle diseases, from depression to obesity. I suspect that enjoyable exercise, physical activity outdoors, and sharing activity with others reduces inflammation,” he says.

“I think that’s what we’ve ignored so far: the quality of exercise is important. Being outdoors, just being exposed to sunlight, will elevate your mood, reduce depression and improve cognitive function.

“Studies have also shown that the health benefits of having a strong social network are the equivalent of not smoking.

“Physical activity you enjoy is actually better for you. That’s the bottom line.”

To understand what physical activity people enjoyed, UniSA researchers asked a large number of participants to rate how much they enjoyed every single activity they undertook during their day out of 10. The result was what Prof Olds’ calls ‘the W pattern’.

“If you look at the pattern of this over the course of a work day, it follows a very characteristic W shaped pattern – you start off quite happy and then it just goes down and reaches its very bottom when you arrive at work,” he says.

“It slowly rises as lunch time draws near but after lunch it goes right back down again. As home time gets closer and you’re just about to leave, it goes up again.

“The W pattern clearly shows that physical activity in the leisure domain is far more enjoyable than that undertaken at work.

“It is common sense – a man walking to work alone on a cold, rainy day to a job he hates is not going to experience the same health benefits as he is when he is walking, at the exact same pace and for the exact same distance, along the beach with someone he loves.”

Prof Olds, who is based at the School of Health Sciences, hopes this latest research will influence national guideline recommendations on physical activity.

“The national guidelines suggest that you should aim for 30 minutes of physical activity every day. But there’s no mention at all of the type of physical activity or the context in which you do it,” he says.

“I believe those guidelines should suggest that while any kind of physical activity is good, for the best results the physical activity should be something you enjoy rather than a chore, it should be done with other people and ideally it should provide some exposure to nature.”