Physical activity targets can now include taking the stairs instead of the lift

Explore the new US guidelines on physical activity

With fewer than 1 in 4 adult Americans currently meeting national exercise guidelines, the 2nd edition of the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans has a new message: every little bit of physical activity you do contributes to your long-term health.

This is a departure from the 1st edition in 2008, which set the activity bar a little higher and declared that only exercise done for a minimum of 10 minutes counted towards overall activity targets.

If the response to the 2008 version is anything to go by, this thinking will soon be winging its way across the Atlantic, so it’s worth taking a looking at the revised messages around health and physical activity.

Physical activity is good

The new guidelines continue to hammer home the message that being physically active is one of the most important actions that people of all ages can take to improve their health. They reiterate the positive effect that physical activity has on a number of health outcomes including:

  • Chronic conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, cancers, type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension and osteoporosis.
  • The risk factors for these chronic conditions.
  • Physical fitness, including aerobic capacity, and muscle strength and endurance.
  • Functional capacity and the ability to engage in everyday activities.
  • Brain health and conditions that affect cognition, including depression and anxiety.
  • Falls and the injuries caused by falls.

The authors of the revised publication say they have reflected on exercise research knowledge gained over the past decade, and that this has changed their recommendations on the amounts and kind of physical activity individuals should undertake to maintain their health and reduce their susceptibility to chronic disease.

More is more

As in 2008, the main idea is that undertaking regular physical aerobic activity will produce long-term health benefits. Add to this the revised message that these benefits increase further the greater the amount of physical activity undertaken.

For “substantial health benefits”, the new guidelines say, adults should do the following spaced out throughout the week:

  • At least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activities (for example, fast walking, cycling, raking leaves – anything that raises the heart rate and makes it difficult to talk/sing while you’re doing it).
  • At least 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activities (such as running, walking fast uphill or carrying heavy shopping – where your heart beats even faster and you find it difficult to speak).
  • An equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous activities.

The guidelines recommend that adults should do muscle-strengthening activities using all of the major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week. These activities include using resistance machines and free weights, such as dumbbells and kettlebells; working out with resistance bands; and bodyweight exercises.

They also suggest that older adults should add balance exercises to their physical activities to prevent falls in this age group. Think heel-to-toe walking drills, step ups on unstable surfaces (like a Bosu ball) or simply repeated standing from a sitting position.

Move more, sit less

What’s new in the 2018 edition is the acknowledgement that exercising for shorter periods of time can still deliver health benefits. Gone is the 10-minute minimum exercise requirement in order for an activity to count towards an individual’s daily goals. “Move more and sit less” throughout the day is the catchy headline message.

As the authors suggest, the more relaxed definition of what that regular activity can be ties in with commonly-used health messages, such as “use the stairs instead of the lift” or “get off the bus a stop earlier”. All smaller periods of activity now count (as long as they make the heart beat faster in the process).

This opens up the exercise landscape to include press ups against the kitchen worktop while the kettle boils, sit-to-stand exercises during the advert breaks on telly and even squats before or after you sit down on the toilet.

Although this change of emphasis reflects the latest scientific thinking on the effects of exercise, it is also an attempt to engage people who feel that they don’t have time to get moving and to help those who feel hopelessly overwhelmed when faced with the need to change their lifestyle.

By breaking down physical activity into smaller, more manageable chunks, the guidelines now legitimise all forms of activity. This will hopefully encourage people to take the first small steps (perhaps literally in some instances) towards a healthier and more active lifestyle. Time will tell.


Read the 2018 Physical activity guidelines for Americans

Read more about the health benefits of regular exercise

Find out how to fit aerobic activity into your busy lifestyle