Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on April 22, 2019.
U.S. adults should fit physical activity into any part of their day for any duration of time to improve their health, according to new physical activity guidelines released by HHS.
US adults don't get enough physical activity, HHS finds
The new guidelines update recommendations HHS issued in 2008, which recommended U.S. residents engage in physical activity in intervals of at least 10 minutes. But, according to HHS, only about 20% of U.S. residents follow the 2008 recommendations, resulting in costly health care complications. The department estimated "$117 billion in annual health care costs and about 10% of premature mortality are associated with inadequate physical activity."
New guidelines say shorter bursts of activity are OK
HHS' new guidelines are more expansive than the 2008 guidelines and are based on research that has found associations between any type of physical activity conducted for any duration of time and improved health, meaning even the briefest and lightest forms of exercise—such as walking or carrying heavy groceries—are better than none.
In particular, research has shown even small bursts of physical activity are associated with:
- Better bone health;
- Improved cognitive function and sleep;
- Healthy brain development in youth;
- Lower rates of gestational diabetes, postpartum depression, and weight gain in pregnant women and new mothers;
- Lower risk of anxiety and depression;
- Lower cancer risks;
- Lower dementia risk;
- Lower high blood pressure risk; and
- More regulated weight gain in children.
As such, HHS in the new guidelines wrote that its previous recommendation of at least 10 minutes is "not essential." However, HHS left unchanged the total amount of recommended physical activity per week. The guidelines recommend that adults each week engage in a total of:
- 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise—which includes brisk walking at 2.5 to 4 miles per hour, playing volleyball, or raking leaves—plus at least two days of muscle-strengthening; or
- 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise—which includes carrying heavy groceries, jogging, and running—plus at least two days of muscle-strengthening.
The new guidelines recommend older adults should focus on exercises to improve their balance and cardio fitness, as well as muscle-strengthening exercises.
For children and teens ages six to 17, HHS continued to recommend at least 60 minutes of vigorous activity per day, as well as three days per week of muscle-strengthening activities. For the first time, HHS included exercise recommendations for preschoolers, saying children ages three to five "should be physically active throughout the day to enhance growth and development."
Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of health at HHS, said, "The new guidelines demonstrate that, based on the best science, everyone can dramatically improve their health just by moving—anytime, anywhere, and by any means that gets you active."
Thomas Allison, director of sports and exercise cardiology at the Mayo Clinic, said he supports the new guidelines, noting that short intervals of physical activity can help break up long intervals of sitting or other sedentary activity. Allison recommended that individuals who work at desks or have sedentary lifestyles aim to get up and engage in physical activity every half-hour for about two minutes.
Kathleen Janz of the University of Iowa, who served on the committee that reviewed research on physical activity to create the new guidelines, said, "Everything adds up and contributes to reduced risk for diseases and day-to-day feeling better. What we were amazed with is the amount of new research—really strong evidence—that supports the role of physical activity in preventing and reducing the progression of disease." Janz added, "Every time you're active, you feel better, think better, and sleep better" (Baker, "Vitals," Axios, 11/13; Aubrey, "Shots," NPR, 11/12; Lyles, MedPage Today, 11/12; Bernstein, Washington Post, 11/12).
Understand the wellness spectrum—and promote healthy habits at work
Programs aimed at promoting healthy habits among employees are likely to lead to improved employee engagement and productivity—but they're unlikely to reduce the total cost of care. To do that, you'll need to take a population health approach.