Half an hour to 40 minutes of daily exercise could offset the dangers of increasingly sedentary lifestyles – according to new World Health Organization guidelines developed in collaboration with the University of East Anglia.
It’s the first time that a recommendation of this kind has been made. And it reflects a large and growing body of evidence linking extensive sedentary time to serious ill health and a heightened risk of early death.
The new guidelines, which aim to drive national policy and practice around the globe, involved more than 40 scientists from around the world – including Dr Karen Milton, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School.
She said: “Physical activity is not only beneficial for our physical health but it also helps support good mental health and benefits things like sleep and cognitive function. Yet globally, around one in four adults and four in five adolescents are insufficiently active.”
The new guidelines, published today, provide a consensus on the latest science on the health impacts of physical activity and sedentary behaviour from early childhood through to older age, and update WHO global recommendations for physical health, published in 2010.
They include advice that children and adolescents should do at least an average of 60 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity and limit the amount of time spent being sedentary, particularly the amount of recreational screen time.
Meanwhile adults should do at least 150 minutes to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity and also limit sedentary behaviour.
All physical activity counts, the research team say – from climbing the stairs instead of taking the lift, a walk around the block, a spot of gardening, or some household chores, to going for a run or bike ride, a high intensity interval training work-out, or team sport.
And those unable to meet these recommendations should start small and gradually build up the frequency, intensity, and duration of their physical activity over time, it says.
The guidelines highlight the importance of regularly undertaking both aerobic and muscle strengthening activities, and for the first time, make specific recommendations for important, but often neglected groups, including those who live with long term conditions or disabilities, pregnant women and new mothers.
Dr Karen Milton, Associate Professor in Public Health at UEA, helped review evidence for people living with disability. She said: “This is the first time that the WHO has produced physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines for this population sub-group.
“We considered the evidence from studies among people with disability, as well as studies in people without disability. Where the evidence was sparse for people with disability specifically, we had to judge whether there was reason to think the evidence and recommendations for the general population would not be applicable.
“The expert group concluded that the recommendations for people with disability are consistent with those of the general population. This applies to both children and adults”.
“The main message is that all activity counts and more is better. Importantly there are no major risks to people with disability being physically active when the activity is appropriate to an individual’s current activity level, health status and physical function, and the health benefits accrued outweigh the risks”.
A special issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine has been published alongside the WHO guidelines and Dr Milton led a paper in this special issue on communication of the new guidelines.
She said: “We know that the existence of guidelines, in isolation, is unlikely to lead to changes in behaviour at the population level. We need to communicate the guidelines to different audiences but how we do that will vary based on what we aim to achieve.
“If the aim is to increase awareness and knowledge of the physical activity guidelines, for example among doctors, we will need to explain what the guidelines are. If the aim is to motivate the general public to be more physically active, conveying information on how, when and where to be physically active may be more appropriate than communicating the guidelines themselves.
“We also need to ensure that communication efforts are complemented with supportive policies, environments, and opportunities for physical activity.”
Dr Milton is part of the UEA’s Norwich Institute of Healthy Ageing - a new research centre investigating how we can live longer, healthier, and more satisfying lives.
The special British Journal of Sports Medicine ‘World Health Organization Guidelines Issue’ is published on November 26, 2020.