Let’s be honest, who really likes intense physical activity? Regardless of how good it makes us feel after, and despite its many health benefits, most of us prefer to do avoid it.

Up to 80 per cent of the adult population in western developed nations do very little physical activity according to Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis, an international expert on physical activity now working at the University of Sydney.

“Nearly 80 per cent of the population in developed countries that do not exercise regularly, and if exercise is not regular it’s not beneficial,” he says.

Only 20 per cent of the population are regular exercisers according to his research. The active wear proliferating our neighbourhoods is more a statement of intent, not reality, and some may even say an example of bad taste.

The professor heads up an international research program that examines health effects of physical activity and other lifestyle health behaviours. He arrived in Australia from Crete, Greece in 2014 and has completed a PhD at the University of Bristol, and a post-doctoral in epidemiology from University College London. The professor has published over 290 papers and co-chaired the 2020 WHO global physical activity development group. He knows stuff about physical exercise.

Prof. Stamatakis doesn’t blame us, he points the finger for our sloth on our social, economic, and urban environment, not our lack of commitment and willpower.

“Our daily routines, our urban environment, automation and our service-based economy has forced us into idleness,” he says.

Notwithstanding enthusiasm, great starts, and periods of regular physical activity, once a routine is broken, it then becomes difficult to reactivate it.

“It’s a chain of conditions, and if a link breaks, it doesn’t restart easily again. It’s easy to begin exercises for several years, and then for some reason to stop, then it’s a nightmare to go back.”

Many of us have bikes that function as coat hangers, or weights that collect dust in a cupboard.

“It’s hard to go back to an exercise routine because if you lose your fitness, it’s a very unpleasant experience,” Prof. Stamatakis says.

The good professor has a solution, his “tips and tricks” may save us.

“Three to four minutes of rigorous exercise per day is enough to extend life, maintain good mental health, and avert cardiovascular disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and cognitive decline.”

“The solution is to be conscious about our day-to-day activity and, the intensity for activity, and aim for a few times per day to push the intensity up, whether we’re walking from point A to B, doing our errands, during work or while commuting to work.”

“The bottom line of our study is that consistent repetition a few short bursts of high intensity activity during our daily routine will in the long term be very beneficial.”

For example, dance is a great activity. Prof. Stamatakis says as it fulfills the need to have “vigorous intermittent physical activity, little bursts of activity on a regular basis, so dancing is fantastic.”

“Dancing is vigorous intermittent physical activity because it’s embedded into daily living.”

“Dancing is done for recreation, and as a hybrid activity it’s not only for exercise, but people also dance for the music, they socialise, and there’s often a social occasion around dance, it is especially good for older people.

“Dance is a fantastic form of hybrid, vigorous, intermittent lifestyle based physical activity, and it is recreation, that fulfils a very important criterion, being intermittent, it is like intensity interval training.”

“There’s a burst, people dance for little while, then there’s a break, there is a chat, a drink, and then there’s another session, it’s exactly what works.”

Drop a four-minute Zembekiko in the office just after lunch to impress your colleagues. Or bust a move in the supermarket aisle to Prince on your headphones.

If you decide not to impress your colleagues, family, and friends with your groove, then just walk more.

“Walking is incredibly important, that’s something we don’t do enough in Australia outside the inner city, it is not a particularly walking friendly place, look in Sydney, if you live in the inner west, it’s not bad, but the rest of Sydney is terrible.

“Sydney is very poor in terms of walkability, I think politicians years ago here in Australia, made a conscious decision to prioritise cars over everything, including public transport.”

Four minutes of vigorous physical activity daily is what the professor ordered for a fuller, healthier, longer and fun life.

Emmanuel Stamatakis is Professor of Physical Activity, Lifestyle, and Population Health at the School of Health Sciences in the Faculty of Medicine & Health, University of Sydney.