News & Insights 7 February 2022

Every move matters, not just sport & exercise

The KiActiv® Blog is a space in which we like to offer our views on the latest news regarding all things physical activity, exercise and health. Since our first edition almost 7 years ago, we have evaluated, appraised and critiqued a wide array of articles based on what we know is true with respect to the benefits of physical activity for health. That truth being, that all movement matters. So, it is unsurprising to learn that no article has grabbed our attention quite like this one, posted recently by the Daily Mail. The headline reads, “Want to dodge bone, muscle or joint pain in your 60s? Only vigorous exercise such as running, tennis and swimming will spare you, study claims.” This is a dangerous and damaging message, which at best will put people off movement in its entirety, or at worst could lead to significant injury amongst those that vigorous exercise is inappropriate for.

The shocking headline is based on findings by researchers from the University of Portsmouth, who conducted a study to examine the relationship between musculoskeletal pain and physical activity over the course of 10 years. The study sample consisted of 5,802 adults aged 50+ at baseline, with an average age of 62 years. Participants were asked whether they were troubled by bone, joint, or muscle pain at baseline, and were also asked to self-report physical activity status using a questionnaire. Subsequently, participants were grouped into four activity groups: sedentary, low, moderate, or high. Ten years later, the participants reported pain status again. Statistical analysis revealed that engaging in ‘high’ levels of physical activity at baseline was associated with a reduced risk of developing pain complaints at 10-year follow-up, with no protective effect seen for those who were active at a ‘moderate’ or lower level. For clarity, the ‘high’ physical activity group were those who reported ‘heavy manual work or vigorous leisure activity more than once a week,’ whilst the moderate group were those who reported ‘doing physical work; or engaging in moderate leisure-time activity more than once a week; or engaging in vigorous activity once a week to 1–3 times a month.’

Our first problem lies with the nature of physical activity assessment. When used alone, subjective self-report data should be interpreted with great caution as it is subject to significant recall and social desirability biases. Take this for example, if you had been asked to list every single activity you had completed in the past week, including things such as housework, shopping, or washing the car, the chances are you would miss something out. So, self-reported measurements of physical activity tend to lack accuracy. Secondly, data collection points took place 10 years apart, with no measure of physical activity taken during this time, so changes in physical activity during the 10 years were not accounted for in any way, instead allowing researchers to infer causality from a tiny ‘snapshot’ of each individual’s true physical activity habits. Resultingly, broad classification of individuals into mutually exclusive sedentary, low, moderate, or high activity groups based on a loose assessment of physical activity status which took place 10 years ago, has enabled the researchers to form flawed conclusions regarding the impact of physical activity on pain status.

There are countless articles which highlight the positive health outcomes associated with lower intensities of physical activity, and many of our clients at KiActiv® have seen huge benefits to their lifestyle as a result of improving their daily non-sedentary time or their daily moderate activity, rather than taking up running or another vigorous activity. This is particularly true for many of our older users, whom have found both intrinsic joy and tangible health benefits as a result of increasing the level of general everyday movement in their usual routines. So, not only is there plenty of research to validate the physiological importance of each dimension for our health, we know that multidimensional physical activity works in the real-world. When viewed in this way, physical activity is accessible to everyone, with no barriers to age, surroundings, or health conditions, and can help any individual to make positive changes which suit them best.

The fact that the Daily Mail were able to run with such a staggering headline based off the findings from this study is seriously concerning, however we are by no means questioning its accuracy given the dataset the researchers had to work with. This, instead, is a case of us calling attention to the outdated methodology that remains commonplace in physical activity research studies to date. So, this is our call to arms, and a plea for researchers in this field to consider the dangers of reporting such bold claims based on inaccurate and outdated measures of physical activity, which can have a serious detrimental impact on many lives. Fortunately, the advent of wearable devices enables us to objectively capture an individual’s free-living physical activity habits at all intensities with far more precision than self-report data, thus an approach which correctly utilises these tools will improve the accuracy of conclusions in physical activity research and help shift the narrative away from vigorous exercise being the sole option to improve our health.

The KiActiv® Team