Published on 15 June 2015

By Dr Alison Kirk, Senior Lecturer in Physical Activity for Health, School of Psychological and Health Sciences, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow and member of the DRWF Editorial Advisory Board.

A large amount of research has now been published which clearly demonstrates the important physical, mental and social health benefits that people with diabetes can experience through being more physically active. Physical activity, combined with a healthy diet and any diabetes medication that you might be taking, will help you to manage your diabetes and prevent long-term diabetes complications. In addition being physically active generally makes you feel better and can benefit the whole family. Guidelines have been published giving advice on how much physical activity to do for different age groups of the population.

The points below give a summary of the main recommendations for both adults and children.

Activity guidelines for adults

  • Adults should aim to be active daily. Over a week, activity should add up to at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate intensity activity in bouts of 10 minutes or more.
  • Similar benefit can be achieved through 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity spread across the week or a combination of moderate and vigorous intensity activity.
  • Older adults at risk of falls should incorporate physical activity to improve balance and co-ordination on at least two days a week.
  • Adults should also undertake physical activity to improve muscle strength on at least two days a week.
  • All adults should minimise the amount of time spent being sedentary (sitting) for extended periods.
Older people playing badminton.

Activity guidelines for children

  • Physical activity should be encouraged from birth.
  • Children of pre-school age who are capable of walking unaided should be physically active daily for at least 180 minutes (3 hours), spread throughout the day.
  • All school age children and young people should engage in moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity for at least 60 minutes.
  • Vigorous intensity activities, including those that strengthen muscle and bone, should be incorporated at least three days a week.
  • All children should minimise the amount of time spent being sedentary (sitting) for extended periods (except time spent sleeping).

Since several previous articles have now been published in Diabetes Wellness News on physical activity for people with diabetes, this article will focus on activity guidelines for both adults and children, and will discuss what sedentary behaviour is, the importance of minimising periods of inactivity, and ways to do this.

What is sedentary behaviour?

Sedentary behaviour is not defined simply as a lack of physical activity. It is a group of behaviours that occur whilst sitting or lying down and that require very low energy expenditure. The low energy requirements distinguish sedentary behaviours from other activities that also occur while sitting down, but which require greater effort. Some examples of sedentary behaviours are:

  • Sitting or lying down while watching television or playing electronic games.
  • Sitting while driving a vehicle, or while travelling.
  • Sitting or lying down to read, study, write, or work at a desk or computer.

In contrast being seated while using a bike or rowing machine would not count as sedentary behaviour as this activity requires effort.

There is a difference between a person who is sedentary and a person who is physically inactive. Being ‘physically inactive' means not doing enough physical activity. However, being 'sedentary' means sitting or lying down for long periods. So, a person can do enough physical activity to meet the guidelines but still be considered sedentary if they spend a large amount of their day sitting or lying down at work, at home, for study, for travel or during their leisure time.

A person watching TV.

The importance of reducing sedentary behaviour

Sedentary behaviour is associated with poorer health outcomes, including an increased risk of being overweight or obese, developing type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease and may also be associated with an increased risk of certain types of cancer. Emerging evidence also suggests sedentary behaviour has a negative impact on those who suffer from depression and on mental wellbeing. Additionally, sedentary behaviour has been associated with poorer blood glucose control for people who have type 2 diabetes.

For children there is some evidence that sedentary behaviour is linked with lower levels of aerobic fitness, higher body weight and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition increased screen time (i.e. television) may lead to greater consumption of high calorie foods. Furthermore children who are more sedentary have a good chance of continuing to be sedentary as adolescents and adults.

Ways to help reduce your sedentary time

You will benefit from minimising time spent sitting each day, and from breaking up long periods of time spent being sedentary, as often as possible.

Research has identified specific benefits in glucose control when individuals incorporate 2 minutes of light intensity walking every 20 minutes of prolonged sitting. There are some activities like reading, doing work on the computer or travelling that may need to be done while you are sitting. The key is to find a healthy balance and to look for opportunities to stand up and move whenever you can. Here are some examples of ways to reduce the amount of time you spend sitting.

Watching TV

  • Put the remote control next to the TV so that you need to get up to change the channel.
  • Stand up and take a short walk during advert breaks.
  • Preset the timer on your TV to turn off after an hour to remind you to get up and move more.
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