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New Physical Activity Guidelines Urge Americans: Move More, Sit Less

Getting physical activity every day can help maintain health throughout your life.
Ronnie Kaufman/Larry Hirshowitz
Getty Images/Blend Images
Getting physical activity every day can help maintain health throughout your life.

You've likely heard the idea that sitting is the new smoking.

Compared with 1960, workers in the U.S. burn about 140 fewer calories, on average, per day due to our sedentary office jobs. And, while it's true that sitting for prolonged periods is bad for your health, the good news is that we can offset the damage by adding more physical activity to our days.

The federal government has just updated recommendations for physical activity for the first time in 10 years, essentially to get that message across. Based on a review of several years of new research, the key takeaway of the new guidelines, released Monday, is: Get moving, America!

"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," Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of health at the Department of Health and Human Services, said in a release.

With a few exceptions, the advice in the new guidelines is not so different from what we were told in the 2008 guidelines. But, here's the trouble: Only about 20 percent of Americans meet them. This lack of physical activity is linked to $117 billion in annual health care costs, according to a report published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association that lays out the new guidelines.

The new guidelines marshal a growing body of evidence that documents immediate benefits of exercise such as reduced anxiety, improved sleep and improved blood sugar control, and long-term benefits (of regular physical activity), including cognitive benefits, and significantly lower risks of heart disease and certain cancers.

So, how much physical activity do we need? On this point, the new guidelines haven't changed: Adults need a minimum of 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity.

One way to think about this: Aim for at least 22 minutes of movement a day. You don't necessarily need to go to the gym or take up jogging. Pick any activity that gets your heart rate up, including walking. In addition, the guidelines call for adults to do muscle-strengthening activity on two or more days a week.

What has changed this time around is an emphasis — for people who are sedentary — to increase movement in their lives even in very short increments.

The old message was you needed at least 10-minute bouts of aerobic activity for it to count toward the goal of 150 minutes a week. But, no longer. The new guidelines conclude that all movement that helps you stay physically active is important.

"Everything counts," says Loretta DiPietro, an epidemiologist at George Washington University who helped write the review of the science on physical activity, upon which the new guidelines are based.

So, if you take the stairs instead of the elevator and it takes you 3 minutes to climb, you can count that toward your daily goal. Since lack of time is a major obstacle to fitting in exercise, the new message is to aim to engineer more movement into your day.

Could you bike or walk more as part of your daily commute? Can you take mini-breaks during the workday or school day to walk around the block? Things like this "can accumulate over the course of the day," DiPietro says. This may help people make a mind shift toward becoming more active.

"Everything adds up and contributes to reduced risk for diseases and day-to-day feeling better," says Kathleen Janz, of the University of Iowa, who also served on the committee reviewing the science of physical activity.

Other changes in the guidelines include messages to older Americans and to the very youngest. The guidelines nudge older Americans to get on board — or stay on board — with a physically active lifestyle, including balance training to help prevent falls.

"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 says.

Physically active lifestyles help reduce the risk of high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and cancers (including bladder, breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, lung and stomach). In addition, physical activity can reduce the risk of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.

For the first time, the guidelines make recommendations for young children aged 3 to 5 years old, noting that "preschool-aged children should be physically active throughout the day to enhance growth and development."

And there are specific recommendations for older kids and adolescents: Children aged 6 to 17 years old should do 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily.

This recommendation hasn't changed since 2008, but what is new is what's known about the range of benefits for this age group. Over the past 10 years, scientists have documented much more about the cognitive benefits. "A physically active lifestyle leads to a healthier brain during youth," says Charles Hillman, who directs the Center for Cognitive and Brain Health at Northeastern University.

Hillman points to a few specific studies that show improved performance of academic tests following exercise. "What we find is that a single bout of exercise has a beneficial effect on brain function," Hillman says.

There are studies pointing to a link between exercise and brain benefits in adults, too. It's one factor that could motivate more people to become more active.

Janz says you don't have to wait around for the benefits of exercise. While it's true that exercising today may help reduce the risk of heart disease decades from now, there also are immediate benefits.

"Every time you're active, you feel better, think better and sleep better," Janz says.

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Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.