Up to 5 million deaths could be avoided each year if all adults, including people living with chronic conditions or disability, devote at least 150 to 300 minutes every week to moderate to vigorous aerobic activity, new guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) say.
For children and adolescents (5-17 years), the WHO has recommended an average of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous, mostly aerobic, physical activity per day all week long. Vigorous-intensity aerobic activities, as well as those that strengthen muscles and bones, should be incorporated at least 3 days a week.
The guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour emphasise that everyone, of all ages and abilities, can be physically active and that every type of movement counts. The guidelines come at a time when the novel coronavirus pandemic has forced millions around the world to stay at home, and curtailed many everyday activities.
Statistics from the WHO show one in four adults (27.5%) and four out of five adolescents (81%) globally do not meet the 2010 WHO recommendations on physical activity. The direct health care cost is estimated at $54 billion; the lost productivity is estimated to cost another $14 billion. Almost no improvements have been seen in physical activity levels over the past decade.
Technical experts and relevant stakeholders from all six WHO regions who were part of a Guideline Development Group (GDG) formed in 2019, met in February. Recommendations were framed by consensus and posted online for public consultation.
Adults (18-64 years) should do at least 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity, or at least 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity throughout the week, for substantial health benefit, the guidelines say.
Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities at moderate or greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups on two or more days a week, as these provide additional health benefits.
For older adults (65 years and above) the WHO has recommended replacing sedentary time with physical activity of any intensity, including light intensity. They are advised to add activities that emphasise balance and coordination, as well as muscle strengthening, to help prevent falls and improve health.
Regular physical activity is key to preventing and helping to manage heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and cancer, as well as reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, reducing cognitive decline, improving memory, and boosting brain health, the guidelines say.
The guidelines encourage women to maintain regular physical activity throughout pregnancy and post-delivery. They also highlight the health benefits of physical activity for people living with disabilities.
Physical activity is beneficial and can be done as part of work, sport, and leisure or transport (walking, wheeling and cycling), but also through dance, play, and everyday household tasks, such as gardening and cleaning. “Physical activity of any type, and any duration can improve health and wellbeing, but more is always better,” Dr Ruediger Krech, WHO’s Director of Health Promotion, said. “And if you must spend a lot of time sitting still, whether at work or school, you should do more physical activity to counter the harmful effects of sedentary behaviour.”
Dr Fiona Bull, Head of the Physical Activity Unit which led the development of the new WHO guidelines, said the guidelines “highlight how important being active is for our hearts, bodies, and minds, and how the favourable outcomes benefit everyone, of all ages and abilities”.
The WHO has encouraged countries to adopt the global guidelines to develop national health policies in support of the WHO Global Action Plan on physical activity 2018-2030. Global health leaders agreed on the plan at the 71st World Health Assembly in 2018 with the aim to reduce physical inactivity by 15% by 2030. “Being physically active is critical for health and well-being — it can help to add years to life and life to years,” the WHO has said.
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