New Global Physical Activity Guidelines - the WHO, the what at the why?
Last updated: January 2023
“WHO is sending the message that even a minute or five minutes of activity is better than none, so think about what you do throughout the whole day”
This is a key part of the message from the latest guidelines on physical activity. This blog overviews the updated guidance and emphasises that some activity is always better than none!
In 2010, the World Health Organisation (WHO) release its global recommendations on physical activity for health, which outlined recommended levels of physical activity for children and adolescents, adults, and older adults. A decade later, the WHO released its updated guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour.
The guidelines provide evidence-based recommendations for the amount and types of physical activity required for significantly improved health benefits and mitigated health risks. The guidelines were developed in accordance with WHO protocols addressing children over five years of age, adults, older adults and, new in this update, pregnant and postpartum women, and those living with chronic conditions and disabilities.
According to the guidelines, adults aged 18-64 should aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, per week. Alternatively, a combination of moderate and vigorous intensity activity can be done, as long as the total time spent on physical activity meets the recommended amount. For children and adolescents, an average of 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous activity across the week provides health benefits.
The guidelines also recommend that adults engage in muscle-strengthening activities at least two days per week for all age groups. These activities should work all major muscle groups, including the legs, hips, back, chest, stomach, shoulders, and arms.
In addition to the above recommendations, the WHO guidelines suggest that adults should aim to minimize sedentary behavior, such as sitting or lying down for long periods of time, as much as possible. Instead, they should try to incorporate short bursts of physical activity into their daily routine, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator or going for a walk during lunch breaks. Although difficult to precisely quantify with the current evidence, it's clear for all age groups and abilities that we should be reducing the total indicative time through the week.
What about the risks?
For all populations, the significant benefits of doing physical activity and reducing sedentary behaviours outweighed the potential harms or adverse events. The risks are generally low and it's important to remember that every move counts - that’s the message that the World Health Organisation wants to get across in their latest guidelines - so starting slowly within your comfort zone is okay, as long as it builds to the recommended level as confidence physical activity improves.
As the science moves on, the guidelines and recommendations are updated to consider the latest evidence. The evolution of physical activity guidelines is shown in this table from The Lancet commentary (ref). This evolution describes the shift from specific exercise training to more general active living.
VPA=vigorous-intensity physical activity. MVPA=moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity. MPA=moderate-intensity physical activity. LPA=light-intensity physical activity. *Primarily among older adults.
These comprehensive and inclusive guidelines aim to inform national policy and actions to promote physical activity and reduce sedentary behaviour, supporting progress towards national and international targets. Physical activity of any type, and any duration, can improve health and wellbeing, but more is always better, 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.
Understanding that every move counts promotes inclusivity and engages people in activities that hold meaning to the individual. Traditional efforts to promote a one-size-fits-all approach to 'sweating it out at the gym' is no longer considered best practice for all, or necessary to promote optimal health. Thinking outside the gym allows for an inclusive approach to accumulating bits of varied activities throughout the week.
Active living through intrinsically meaningful movement that challenges, stimulates, and develops motor skills is key to ensuring that people can maintain consistency of activity to meet health goals. 'movement snacks' or 'movement opportunities' (ref) can be great ways for people to stay active if they do not find value or enjoyment in specific exercise training.
The 2020 guidelines reaffirm the message that:
Every move counts
Regular activity is good for the heart, body & mind
Active living is just as impactful as dedicated 'exercise training', so you can be active in whatever way works for you
Regular muscle-strengthening activities 2 x week are important for good health
Sedentary time should be limited
Importantly, this applies to all ages & abilities
This video beautifully portrays the range of movement types and activities you can do in pursuit of improved health outcomes.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has updated its physical activity guidelines for the first time in 10 years, with an emphasis on the benefits of any movement throughout the day and reducing sedentary behavior. It's important to note that the above recommendations are the minimum amount of physical activity necessary to maintain good health. For additional health benefits, the WHO recommends that adults increase their physical activity levels even further.
The WHO's updated guidelines highlight the importance of regular physical activity in maintaining good health and reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. By incorporating moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic activity and muscle-strengthening activities into their weekly routine and minimizing sedentary behavior, adults can take an important step towards improving their overall health and well-being.
References and Further Reading
The full WHO Guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour. https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/336656
WHO Guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour: at a glance – provides a summary of the recommendations and is available in all 6 UN languages. https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/337001
Special issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine. https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/54/24
Bull FC, Al-Ansari SS, Biddle S, et al. World Health Organization 2020 guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2020;54:1451-1462 https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/54/24/1451
International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity. https://ijbnpa.biomedcentral.com/articles
Journal of Physical Activity and Health. Link: https://doi.org/10.1123/jpah.2020-0323
BJSM podcast with Fiona Bull and Juana Willumsen
Physical activity guidelines 2020: comprehensive and inclusive recommendations to activate populations https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)32229-7/fulltext
Saunders TJ, McIsaac T, Douillette K et al. Sedentary behaviour and health in adults: an overview of systematic reviews. Appl Physiol Nutr Metabol. 2020; 45: S197-S217 https://cdnsciencepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1139/apnm-2020-0272