Are men doing better on national aerobic activity guidelines?

Men are doing better than women at meeting recommended national aerobic activity guidelines, latest figures have suggested. The example and support of a partner or even a whole family can be a powerful incentive and a useful health promotion message.

Employee health and wellbeing – men are doing better on activity guidelines

Nearly two thirds of men (66%) successfully met recommended national aerobic activity guidelines in 2016 compared to just over half (58%) of women, according to latest figures from NHS Digital’s Health Survey for England.

The Health Survey for England series monitors trends in the nation’s health and covers a variety of topics each year including obesity, smoking, drinking and wellbeing. The surveys gather information from both adults and children

When it came to physical activity, London had the highest proportion of people aged 16 or over meeting the guidelines for aerobic activity, at 65%, whereas the West Midlands had the lowest, at 53%. On average, 62% of adults in England met the guidelines.

The UK guidelines for aerobic physical activity recommend that adults aged 19 and over should undertake a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week in bouts of 10 minutes or more. Alternatively, comparable benefits can be achieved through 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity spread across the week, or combinations of moderate and vigorous intensity activity.

However, while men were more likely to meet these guidelines, the survey also showed that they were, on average, more sedentary than women when not at their paid work. Men spent average of 4.8 hours sitting on a weekday and 5.3 hours on a weekend, compared to women’s 4.6 weekday hours and 4.9 weekend hours, the survey found.

Rising rates of mental ill health

The survey also added more weight to the evidence about growing rates of mental ill-health. The survey looked at participants’ GHQ-12 scores, or a 12-item questionnaire asking about general levels of happiness, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance and self-confidence.

This found that the proportion of adults with a high GHQ-12 score had grown from 15% in 2012 to 19% in 2016.

Most age groups showed some increase in probable mental ill health, but the largest increases were reported among men aged 16-24 and 25-34 and women aged 16-24.

Finally, the survey looked for the first time at the extent of liver disease as well as the use of prescribed medicines.

On liver disease, it found that 1% of all adults reported doctor-diagnosed chronic liver disease, with this being most prevalent among those aged 55-64.

On prescribed medicines, 48% of adults reported having taken at least one prescribed medicine in the last week and 24% had taken three or more.

Not all doom and gloom?

So, what should we make of all this and what especially should employers be taking away from it, especially the headline finding around activity levels?

First, even though the percentage of men and women meeting the guidelines could certainly be better, it is nevertheless positive that it is so high.

It is very easy to despondent  about our “couch potato” nation, but it is clear that many people are committed to being and staying active.

That being said, employers do still have an important role to play in promoting healthier and more active lifestyles and habits, given the amount of time we all spend at work and the increasingly sedentary nature of many work roles.

The findings about men being more sedentary at weekends is also worrying. The weekend, after all, should by rights be the time when families come together and get out and do things, ideally activities that will be active and healthy.

Weekend fitness ‘warriors’

So, the fact men appear less engaged with physical activity at weekends is intriguing. There may be a way employers can help here, even if the weekend is, of course, commonly outside their working sphere.

As Dr Lucy Wright, Chief Medical Officer at Optima Health highlights, employers could be pushing the power of peer and partner pressure as part of their wellbeing promotion agenda. “It doesn’t often take much, and certainly doesn’t need to come across as intrusive, to promote the idea of family health.

“If employees are being encouraged to take health and fitness messages home, that could well be extremely valuable. Of course, some of this may occur naturally. Someone who has got into the habit of being more active is more likely to want to carry that on at home, and possibly enlist their children and/or partner.

Lucy goes on to add that “There may be mileage in employers specifically promoting this message – that exercise and activity is not just good for you as an individual, it can make your whole family fitter and healthier, resulting in positive changes such as lower BMI, greater stamina and simply the ability to do more with your friends and family at the weekend.”