Recent research by VitalityHealth found that making small lifestyle improvements and behaving as an ‘Everyday Athlete’ can significantly improve overall life span. In this interview, Shaun Subel, Strategy Director at VitalityHealth, provides his analysis on the findings, highlighting some of the easiest and most effective improvements we can make to our everyday lives and the huge motivational effect of the Olympic games.
Your recent research found that making small increases in levels of exercise and sport can improve life span by more than three years. Can you tell us more about the findings?
Our core purpose is to encourage people to lead healthier lives and we reward people for doing so. One way we do this is by monitoring our members’ activity through wearable technology. The data we obtain allows us to look at the intensity of a workout as well as its distance or duration.
For the launch of the Everyday Athlete campaign we analysed 6,600 members over the course of 12 months. We found that previously sedentary members who increased their activity levels to the Government recommended 150 minutes a week saw their life expectancy boosted by more than three years (3.1 years). In addition, members who increased their activity levels to 90 minutes saw an increase of almost three years (2.7 years) and exercising just 60 minutes a week saw an increase of more than two years (2.4 years).
These findings were calculated through analysis of each individual’s ‘Vitality Age’. This is an aggregate measure of wellness that evaluates the gap between physical body age and actual age. The calculator takes into account factors such as weight, the amount and intensity of exercise undertaken, cholesterol, eating habits, levels of happiness and alcohol consumption. By surveying members before and after they made changes to their everyday behaviour, the data pinpointed the impact of behaviour on life expectancy.
Were you surprised by just how much of an effect increased exercise seems to have on life expectancy?
We know that small steps can make a big difference to long term-health, so we aren’t surprised. The challenge is communicating and educating the nation. Many people think that in order to lead a healthy life you need to run a marathon – while we wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from doing that, smaller steps such as walking up the stairs, walking the dog for an extra 10 minutes a day, or even getting off of the bus a stop early and walking can also have a big impact.
The study also found that there were some common barriers preventing people exercising more: time constraints, expense and not enjoying it. Why do you think these have become such significant issues in relation to people’s current lifestyles?
We are living in an environment where people lead busy lives. Working long hours, lengthy commutes to and from work, and constant connectivity to mobile devices can mean that people don’t feel they have the time to exercise. If people are stressed and tired it can also make exercise feel like a chore. In addition, some gym memberships and exercising classes can be expensive and not a priority for people when they have other bills to pay.
The Everyday Athlete campaign aims to inspire people to make small changes to everyday behaviour to realise long term health improvements. We want to show the nation that activity needn’t be time-consuming, expensive or unenjoyable. That’s why we believe in the importance of making exercise habitual and encouraging people to introduce physical activity into their existing routines. Through this democratisation of health we help individuals overcome these key barriers.
Equally, through rewarding healthy behaviour the barrier of lack of motivation can be overcome.
What are some of the best ways people can increase their levels of activity with these issues in mind? For example, increasing exercise in ways that aren’t necessarily time-consuming or expensive?
There are many things people can do to incorporate physical exercise into their existing routines. Whether it’s walking up the stairs instead of taking the lift, taking the baby for a walk in the pram, doing 30 minutes of standing in the office every day or washing the car once a week, there are endless examples. All of these activities are inexpensive, aren’t time consuming and also the type of things people are already undertaking. It’s surprising how many calories that can be burnt by doing this type of activity. Walking the dog for an extra 10 minutes every day for a year, for example, can burn up to 12,688 calories for women and 15,132 for men.*
What did the study also find in terms of linking increased exercise with rewards or perks such as cinema tickets, coffee vouchers etc?
Our analysis found that rewarding physical activity has a direct impact on both kick starting activity and encouraging people to continue being active. Since introducing rewards such as cinema tickets and Starbucks drinks for completing exercise, more than a third of members who had previously been registered as inactive are now engaging in physical activity in order to receive their Active Rewards. This was even more profound for those members who were already active, with the introduction of rewards prompting an eight fold increase in those reaching weekly activity targets.
We have also seen that once a member nears their target number of steps, many will increase their activity to ensure they surpass these thresholds to unlock the rewards.
Do you think that the Rio Olympics will be effective in inspiring an increase in exercise and sport in the way the 2012 London games did?
Sport can have a huge impact on people and can help to increase participation. At Vitality, we harness the power of sport for good. That’s why we sponsor sporting initiatives and partner with sportspeople such as Jessica Ennis-Hill and Joe Root, to give people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds the opportunity and inspiration to engage in sport.
We have seen a growing awareness of sport, especially among women. Our research found that female sports stars are key to motivating women and girls to participate in sport and exercise, with Jessica Ennis-Hill being declared the most inspirational sports star for both men and women.
We hope that the Rio Olympics will be as effective in inspiring and motivating people to participate and engage in sport as the London games.
Do you think more people are realising the full value of an increase in exercise to their health and lifespan, and if so, do you think this awareness will continue to increase?
Encouraging people to exercise is a challenge: more than 40% of the UK population doesn’t meet the recommended target of 150 minutes of moderate activity a week.** This is despite structural shifts such as the emergence of wearable technology, which provides people with more ways to track exercise.
However, by incentivising healthy behaviour through our Active Rewards, members have become more engaged and motivated to reach their goals. We have seen that when people understand the benefits of physical activity and are provided with incentives they’ll continue to make positive and lasting improvements to their health.
* Figure calculated using http://www.myfitnesspal.com/exercise/lookup
**Public Health England Active People Survey: