America updates its physical activity guidelines, with one important change
Physical activity is good for you — you function better and feel better when you move your body, and health authorities generally agree on how much movement you need.
The standard prescription is at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity a week, as well as muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week.
That’s the World Health Organisation’s guideline, which is shared by the Australian and United States federal governments (among others).
But a problem with that target is that it can sound impossibly daunting to those who do little physical activity, or feel they don’t have the time or ability to exercise.
A major update to the US physical activity guidelines, published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, offers a solution.
The refreshed guidelines call on Americans to “move more and sit less throughout the day”, explicitly decreeing any amount of activity is better than none.
At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, remains the recommendation for “substantial health benefits”.
But the update clarifies that even very short bursts of physical activity — on actions as mundane as taking the stairs, gardening, or parking the car further from your destination — are good for you.
Updated for the first time in 10 years, the guidelines add that those who currently do very little physical activity have the most to gain by moving more.
“Multiple studies demonstrate that the steepest reduction in disease risk, such as for coronary heart disease, occurs at the lowest levels of physical activity,” wrote Paul Thompson, chief of cardiology at Hartford Hospital, and Thijs Eijsvogels, an exercise physiology professor at Radboud University Medical Center, in an editorial accompanying the guidelines.
“Even small amounts of physical activity are beneficial and … reductions in the risk of disease and disability occur by simply getting moving.”
The tweaks have been welcomed by health bodies such as the American Council on Exercise and the American Heart Association, which has adopted the updated guidelines as its official physical activity recommendations.
According to the US guidelines, 80 percent of Americans are “insufficiently active”. Australians don’t fare much better: more than half of us are insufficiently active, particularly those aged 65 and up, and children.
Another editorial published alongside the guidelines notes many reasons for the world’s poor physical activity scores: people don’t feel like they have the time, energy or ability, they don’t think they enjoy it, their friends and family mightn’t encourage or motivate them, or they might not have access to environments or facilities where they can be active.
The guidelines offer a long, long list of health benefits linked to physical activity: lower risk of diseases and early death, improved cognition and mental health, improved sleep and bone function, and (of course) better weight management, among others.
“It is difficult to convey the health benefits of physical activity in a way that does not sound like it is a ‘cure all’,” wrote doctors Brett Giroir and Don Wright, who both work under the US Secretary for Health.
Translation: Physical activity is wonder drug, in any amount.