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Expert view - 'active ageing' at Abertay

18 February 2016

Here at Abertay our sport and exercise scientists carry out research in a number of different areas, but are particularly interested in what is known as ‘active ageing’ – the benefits of maintaining an active lifestyle as we age.

A new book edited by Dr Ahmad Alkhatib, the Head of our Sport and Exercise Science Division, has just been published which brings together the latest scientific evidence from around the world looking at the deteriorating health consequences of sedentary behaviour and physical inactivity across the human lifespan.

It also provides novel and effective intervention strategies, primarily based on physical activity, that should be able to reverse and reduce these health risks – particularly the risks related to the metabolism and cardiovascular disease.

We asked Dr Alkhatib a few questions to find out more:

What is meant by a sedentary lifestyle?

“When we say ‘sedentary behaviour’ it’s more than just ‘not doing exercise’. Sedentary behaviour actually covers any behaviour that involves not spending enough energy like sitting for long periods at work, watching TV and driving. So anything that involves sitting or lying down for long periods of time without getting up and moving about.”

Why is it so bad for us? What are the risks of a sedentary lifestyle?

“There is a bulk of recent evidence that shows that not only lack of physical activity, but also sedentary behaviour is linked with major chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. Even if we try to compensate for too much sitting by performing exercise, we may still be in danger of those risks. As a take-home message, out of 24 hours, our waking hours need to be as active as possible to prevent those risks.”

The book has chapters looking at older people, diabetics and adolescents. Are the risks of a sedentary lifestyle different for these different population groups?

“Yes, across the lifespan, each age group may be exposed to different sedentary risks. As we grow older our physiology and metabolic functions change, and our energy and circulation are slowed down, so sedentary behaviour exposes us to increased risks. The risk is greater in women, particularly in post-menopausal women. And the risk is greater still for individuals with a diagnosed metabolic disorder such as diabetes. Younger age groups such as adolescents and school-aged children have different risks such as neglected P.E. classes, and familial and environmental factors.”

Why is there a specific focus on exercise in older people here at Abertay?

“Abertay could play a major role in informing Scottish public health policies, and we are in a unique location to support the community’s health and wellbeing. As a result, I have been fortunate to have been able to establish a Division strategy towards physical activity and health in older populations, whilst creating new opportunities for students and colleagues to make a real impact on people’s health. This book is only the start of enabling Abertay to take leadership in this key area.”

Can you give us an example of the novel intervention strategies that are suggested in the book?

“There are a number of innovative approaches that the book has introduced or discussed, including workplace-based targeted interventions, school-based interventions, web-based and occupational health and wellbeing.

“When we say ‘exercise based-interventions’, this is like having exercise as a tool to prevent sedentariness and the associated health risks, and using exercise as a base to make an overall healthy change and encouraging healthy behaviours. For example, an exercise based intervention could involve receiving exercise-based health assessments, exercise-based health and wellbeing advice, exercise-based eating-well advice, exercise-based lifestyle assessment and advice. Exercise-based interventions scope a number of physical and mental wellbeing benefits for sedentary workplaces for both employees and organisations.

“One of my previous achievements in this area, working with similar sedentary workplaces for example, was that we were able to introduce effective exercise-based interventions within the workplace aimed at specific cardiovascular risks amongst sedentary employees. Our devised strategy was based on a comprehensive combination of physiological, psychological, and nutritional targeted assessments within the workplace, and would identify the specific health risks amongst sedentary employees, including high levels of blood cholesterol and blood glucose, excess body fat and reduced strength and mobility, behaviour towards physical activity and dietary habits. There is a good summary of the results from three effective interventions at different workplaces that I led in the UK and internationally. The interventions also took into consideration the differences in job roles and genders within the workplace, and this approach seemed promising in reducing the risks amongst sedentary employees.”

One of the book chapters looks specifically at the health risks of a sedentary workplace – should we be doing exercise while we work?

“Yes, it’s a joint responsibility at all levels to encourage workplace health and wellbeing, and of course physical activity and exercise are an integral part of any strategy. There are great benefits for both employers and employees in investing in workplace health and wellbeing strategies, including increased productivity, reducing the cost of sickness absences, and simply having happier employees. It is not simply an occupational health policy: it has to be embedded within the workplace culture. There is a good recommendation section for both employers and employees within Chapter 2 of the book.

“I recommend not sitting still for long periods of time, so even small physical movement around the office could make a positive impact on health in the long run. Lunch breaks are a good time to perform physical activity, and successful interventions often encourage employees who may not come forward to exercise on their own. Also, employees often reported lack of time and managerial consent as the main two barriers to engage in such interventions, so the organisation could facilitate wider support for employees to engage in physical activity as part of the culture within the workplace.”

In the news not long ago, there was a story telling us that we should be standing up at work rather than sitting at our desks – is that something we should all be doing?

“One size does not fit all, and standing still for long periods has its own risks – posture problems for example, blood flow or musculoskeletal injury. Some workplaces have provided standing work stations, but this may not be sufficient. I recommend walking rather than sitting or standing. Chapter 7 of the book has an excellent take on the biomechanical and metabolic benefits of walking which is an inexpensive, less risky and easy form of exercise, and certainly burns more calories compared with standing.”

Finally, can you give us any top tips to fit into our busy lives that will help us maintain our health as we get older?

“Additionally to the simple message of ‘eat healthily’ and ‘move more’ I’d add that it’s important to consider what your activity levels are within the 24 hours of your day, including the time you spend at work. Don’t let sedentariness creep into your lifestyle.

“Everyone is different, so choose the exercise you feel is working for you. This could be home-based, work-based, or gym-based.

“Finally, little exercise is better than no exercise, and as we get older the needs become greater, so keep this in mind.”

The book - 'Sedentary Lifestyle: Predictive Factors, Health Risks and Physiological Implications' - is published by Nova Science. Hard copies will be available from 1 April, but it can be pre-ordered online.

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