It’s now easier than ever to get your recommended amount of exercise, according to new physical activity guidelines released Monday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). While the total number of minutes per week has not changed, one important detail has: Now, the government says, every little bit of activity—even just one or two minutes at a time—counts.
The update, officially known as the second edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, was announced at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions meeting. Previously, the guidelines stated that physical activity must be done in increments of 10 minutes or more to count toward your weekly total.
“Some physical activity is better than none,” the updated guidelines state. “Adults who sit less and do any amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity gain some health benefits.”
The change is important, experts say, because many Americans simply aren’t meeting the guidelines set for adults—to get at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate physical activity, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity, per week. According to research published in JAMA with the guidelines, only 26% of men and 19% of women are getting that much.
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The guidelines (original and updated) recommend that children ages 6 to 17 get 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity every day, but only 20% of adolescents meet the recommendations for their age groups. And now, for the first time, the guidelines make a recommendation for children ages 3 to 5—that they should be physically active throughout the day.
“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,” said Admiral Brett P. Giroir, MD, assistant secretary for health, in an HHS press release. The guidelines cite research suggesting that an estimated $117 billion in annual health care costs, and about 10% of premature deaths, are associated with not meeting these daily and weekly activity goals.
They also list several benefits of physical activity that have been discovered since the initial Physical Activity Guidelines were introduced in 2008. These include improved bone health, weight status, and cognitive function for children; reduced risk of eight types of cancers (up from two in 2008); brain health benefits; reduced anxiety and depression risk; improved sleep quality; and reduced risk of falls for older adults. Physical activity can also reduce the risk of health complications for pregnant women and people with chronic medical conditions.
Ideally, the guidelines say, adults should get a mix of different types of activity, including moderate aerobic activity (like walking), vigorous aerobic activity (like running), and muscle-strengthening activities (like weight training). All three of these activities are good for your muscles and for your heart, research shows. For example, a recent University of Iowa study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that lifting weights can reduce risk of heart attack or stroke by 40 to 70%, and it took less than one hour a week to see the biggest benefits.
The new guidelines also acknowledge that there are immediate health benefits attainable from a single bout of activity—such as reduced anxiety and blood pressure, improved sleep quality, and improved insulin sensitivity. Overall, the guideline authors wrote in JAMA, the evidence is clear: “Physical activity fosters normal growth and development and can make people feel better, function better, sleep better, and reduce the risk of many chronic diseases.”
Of course, most health experts have been singing this tune for quite a while—and we’ve long been proponents of the idea that every little bit of exercise counts. That’s why it’s so important to sit less, at work and at home; to take more steps every day; and to find creative ways to sneak in physical activity—sometimes called an "exercise snack"—even when you’re not doing an official heart-pumping, sweat-inducing workout.
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