What you need to know about the new WHO exercise guidelines

On November 25th, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a 92-page update on its guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behavior (via WHO). These updated guidelines provide evidence-based public health recommendations for people of all ages on just how much physical activity, including frequency, duration, and intensity, is necessary to yield significant health benefits and decrease major health risks.

It is well-known and documented that regular physical activity plays a big role in the prevention and management of serious diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, various forms of cancer, and mental health disorders, as well as many others. Physical inactivity is actually a leading contributor to global mortality, with estimates claiming four to five million deaths per year could have been avoided if the global population was more active.

The previous WHO guidelines were released in 2010 and with a decade of additional research and data now under their belt, these new WHO guidelines provide individuals with the most up-to-date recommendations on just how much time they should spend physically active. Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO states (via WHO), "Being physically active is critical for health and well-being — it can help to add years to life and life to years. Every move counts, especially now as we manage the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic. We must all move every day — safely and creatively" 

New WHO physical activity guidelines

Let's review the new guidelines by age.

For children and adolescents 5 to 17 years old, at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity is recommended per day. On at least three days per week, the WHO also recommends this age group perform muscle and bone-strengthening exercises. They stress limiting time spent being sedentary, particularly limiting recreational screen time. The good news is that this age group typically views physical activity as a means of socializing and fun, such as team sports, neighborhood playing, and so on.

For adults 18 to 64 years old, at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or at least 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity is recommended per week. They do mention that performing more than the recommended amount of exercise may yield additional health benefits. The WHO guidelines also stress performing muscle-strengthening activities at least two days per week to support muscle and bone health. Once again, limiting time spent sedentary is advised and should be replaced with physical activity of any intensity.

For pregnant and postpartum women without any contraindications, at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week is recommended. Physical activity in this group has been found to have both positive maternal and fetal health benefits such as a decreased risk of gestational diabetes, delivery complications, and fewer newborn complications — to state a few. Adding gentle stretching is also beneficial.

More updated WHO physical activity guideline

For older adults aged 65 and older, the WHO recommends that all, even those with chronic medical conditions, should make an effort to partake in regular physical activity. They are recommended to achieve at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or at least 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week. In addition, this group is encouraged to perform muscle-strengthening activities at least two days per week, and are also advised to do varied multicomponent physical activity which emphasizes functional balance and strength training three days per week. Doing this may help enhance functional capacity and can help prevent falls, which can be devastating and sometimes deadly. This group is also advised to limit time spent sedentary and should be replaced with physical activity of any intensity.

For children and adolescents living with disabilities, at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity per day is recommended. Muscle-strengthening activities on at least three days per week are also advised.

Adults living with disabilities are recommended to achieve at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or at least 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week. They are also being encouraged to perform muscle-strengthening activities at least two days per week, as well as performing varied multicomponent physical activity which emphasizes functional balance and strength training three days per week.

A little movement is better than no movement at all

If there is one thing that's certain, it's that doing some physical activity is better than none. A recent study published the same day as the new WHO guidelines found that walking for at least 11 minutes a day could actually lessen the health consequences of remaining sedentary for hours (via The New York Times). 

While the new guidelines may seem impossible and overwhelming to many, the WHO stresses the importance of starting slowly. To achieve sustainable and practical results and benefits, people should start with low intensity, shorter workouts or activity and slowly increase intensity, duration, and frequency of their physical activity gradually. This helps to combat the discouragement some people feel when they can't run a marathon the first day they hit the treadmill. 

Another tip is finding a workout buddy who can help hold you accountable and motivate you on the days when the couch seems like the only destination. So fill up your bottle of water and simply get up — from there you can pave your way to a healthier and longer life!