The World Health Organization recently updated its guidelines for physical activity and sedentary behavior. This marks the first update the WHO has made to the guidelines since 2010.
The new guidelines call for adults (ages 18–64) to do 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, or 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise, per week (or some equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous exercise). Additionally, resistance training at moderate or greater intensity — involving all major muscle groups — should be done at least 2 times per week.
This equates to about 30–60 minutes of total exercise per day. That amount of activity has been shown to have a range of health benefits, including reduced risk for hypertension, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and all-cause mortality (dying from any cause). Additionally, exercise at these levels improves mental health (including anxiety and depression), brain functioning, and sleep quality.
Adults over 65 should place extra emphasis on functional balance and strength training at moderate or greater intensity at least 3 times per week, to improve overall physical functioning and bone health, as well as to prevent against falls.
Children and adolescents (ages 5–17) should be averaging 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity aerobic activity per day, as well as activities that strengthen muscle and bone at least 3 times per week. Kids who meet these levels are shown to have improved cardiometabolic health (blood pressure, lipids, glucose, and insulin levels), bone health, mental health (reduced symptoms of depression), and cognitive functioning (academic performance).
Unfortunately, the guidelines report that 27.5% of adults and 81% of adolescents do not meet the recommendations for aerobic exercise, and there has been no overall improvement in global levels of activity over the last two decades.
It may feel like a huge undertaking to meet these new guidelines, but it is important to note that any amount of physical activity is better than none and you can work your way up to these optimal levels. Start with small amounts of exercise and gradually increase frequency, intensity, and duration over time. Brisk walking is a great place to start.
Another worthy goal across the board is to simply limit sedentary behavior. Although the WHO guidelines do not specifically call out the maximum amount of time you should be sitting per day (due to limited evidence for specific thresholds), less is more in this regard. Every time you go to sit, simply ask yourself if you could be standing or moving instead.
Overall, the new guidelines are very similar to the 2010 version, which confirms the continued strong evidence for exercise’s role in improving health. In terms of what’s new, the previous guidelines called for exercise to be done in bouts of at least 10 minutes, but that has now been removed. This change reflects the evidence that exercise of any session duration is associated with better health, including reduced all-cause mortality. A little bit really is better than nothing at all.
The second big change is these new guidelines now specify a target range of physical activity, compared with the previous version that focused on simply achieving the lowest end of the range. This edit acknowledges that the more exercise you do the better, but going above the upper limit does not necessarily produce additional benefits.
The WHO does not specify the types of exercise that are optimal for health, beyond incorporating the overarching categories of aerobic exercise and muscle strengthening. The best type of exercise is likely the one that you enjoy doing and can do consistently over time. For me, that currently includes a mix of running, squash, and resistance training on a weekly basis.
I firmly believe that regular exercise has the power to change your life more than any other habit. These WHO guidelines provide a very concrete and practical formula to improve your overall health and well-being.