New Physical Activity Guidelines Offer Simple Advice: Move More, Sit Less

3 minute read

Americans should sit less and move more, even if that activity comes in tiny chunks, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) latest physical activity guidelines.

The core recommendations in the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which were published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, aren’t all that different from the previous iteration, which was released in 2008. The tone, however, has shifted to include more manageable forms of activity and to promote benefits of exercise that go beyond physical health, such as improved cognitive function, mental health and sleep quality — changes that may encourage more Americans to adhere to the standards.

Just as they did in 2008, the guidelines urge American adults to shoot each week for at least 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise (such as running), at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (such as brisk walking) or some combination of the two. In addition, the guidelines say adults should aim to complete muscle-strengthening activities, such as resistance training or weight-lifting, at least two days per week.

But the new guidelines take a more approachable tack than in years past, urging adults to simply “move more and sit less throughout the day,” and reminding them that “some physical activity is better than none.” (The latter message was also included in the previous version.) The updated recommendations also specify that physical activity can be accumulated throughout the day, even through short activities like taking the stairs or picking a far-away parking spot. Previously, only activities lasting 10 minutes or longer met HHS’ criteria.

The same general standards apply to older adults, though the guidelines say that elderly individuals should prioritize activities that combine muscle-strengthening, balance and aerobic exercise, which can help make up for bone and muscle loss that comes with aging. Older adults should also tailor their activity levels to their health capabilities, the guidelines say.

Time and intensity recommendations are less stringent for children, but the guidelines still encourage kids to keep moving to avoid excess weight and heightened risks of chronic disease. New this year, the guidelines include a recommendation for preschool-aged children, who they say should generally aim to “be physically active throughout the day.” School-aged children and adolescents should aim for at least an hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day, including muscle- and bone-strengthening exercises on some days, according to the guidelines.

The standards also include specific recommendations for pregnant women, for whom physical activity may reduce the risk of complications such as gestational diabetes and excessive weight gain. All pregnant and postpartum women should do at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week, the paper says, while those who were very active before pregnancy can likely continue with their regular routines.

The guidelines do note that health benefits tend to accumulate as physical activity level increases — so adults who can get 300 or more minutes of exercise per week should do so. Nonetheless, research has shown that even modest amounts of light physical activity, such as walking, cleaning and running errands, can come with benefits including better mental health and longevity.

So while everyone should aim to hit or exceed the guidelines, the most important thing is to fit in more activity, however and whenever it works for you.

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