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Only around one in 20 adults is as active as the Government says they should be in order to remain healthy, a report from The NHS Information Centre shows.

However, while few people actually meet the Government’s recommended guidelines for weekly physical activity, many more (about one in three) say they do.

Today’s Health Survey for England – 2008: Physical activity and fitness is the first survey of its scale in England to capture not only how much exercise people say they do, but also how much they actually do.

And it reveals a sharp contrast between the two – suggesting people may be exaggerating to researchers the extent of their physical activity or simply misjudging how much they are doing.

However, the report also showed the more physical activity people said they did, the more fit they were, when their fitness level was measured using a step test. It also showed men were significantly fitter than women and that, for both sexes, fitness decreased with age.

As part of the survey, approximately 15,000 adults were asked to recall how much physical activity they had done over the previous four weeks. During a subsequent week, a sample of those surveyed (around 3,300) then wore an accelerometer – a device that provides an objective measure of physical activity.

The device told the researchers how much activity the participant had actually done in the week they wore it. Of those who said they had met or exceeded the Government’s guidelines, only around one in ten (ten per cent of men and eight per cent of women) then did so during the week of wearing their accelerometers.

The Government’s chief medical officer (CMO) recommends that adults be active at moderate or greater intensity for at least 30 minutes a day either in one session or through shorter bouts of activity of 10 minutes or longer, on at least five days a week.

Overall the report showed:

Based on self-reported physical activity, 39 per cent of men and 29 per cent of women aged 16 and over met the CMO’s minimum recommendations for physical activity in adults. The percentages of both men and women who met the recommendations generally decreased with age and were lower among overweight and obese people.
In contrast

Based on the results of the accelerometers, only six per cent of men and four per cent of women met the CMO’s recommendations for physical activity. Those aged 16-34 were most likely to have met the recommendations and the percentages of both men and women meeting the recommendations were lower in the older age groups.
Of those whose self-reported activity level corresponded with meeting the CMO’s recommendations, only 10 per cent of men and eight per cent of women then also met the recommendations in the week they wore the accelerometer.

For children and young people, the Government recommends they should do a minimum of 60 minutes each day of at least moderate intensity physical activity. Based on self reported physical activity, 32 per cent of boys and 24 per cent of girls aged two to 15 were achieving the guideline.

The results based on the accelerometer readings were similar with 33 per cent of boys and 21 per cent of girls meeting the guidelines. However, accelerometry indicates a larger differentiation between older and younger children.

The Health Survey for England is an annual survey that monitors the health of the nation. The primary focus of the 2008 survey was physical activity and fitness. Its secondary objective was to look at childhood obesity and other factors affecting health such as fruit and vegetable consumption, smoking and drinking

The NHS Information Centre’s chief executive Tim Straughan said: “This report provides a much-needed insight into how much physical activity people of different ages are doing.

“What’s clear is that there is a stark mismatch between how much adults say they are doing and what they are doing in reality.

“However, activity levels are lower than recommended for the vast majority of us, including children. This is a worrying finding and health professionals need to find ways of addressing this to reduce the levels of obesity and weight-related ill health.”

The full report is at www.ic.nhs.uk/pubs/hse08physicalactivity