Take the stairs up to your office. Park a little further away from the grocery store. Walk your dog around the block. Carry out the trash.
Any amount of physical activity – even two minutes' worth – can add up to huge benefits for your immediate and long-term health, according to the new edition of the US Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
A solid contribution
Previously, the guidelines held that unless physical activity lasted 10 minutes or longer, it didn't count toward a person's recommended weekly activity goals.
But research has shown any small amount of activity provides a solid contribution to a person's health, according to the second edition of the guidelines unveiled Monday at the American Heart Association's annual meeting in Chicago.
"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," Admiral Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), said in a news release.
Only 26% of men, 19% of women and 20% of teenagers currently get their recommended weekly amount of physical activity, according to HHS.
The first edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines came out a decade ago, in 2008.
The new edition also highlights a broader array of short- and long-term benefits from physical activity, all based on scientific evidence:
- Just a single bout of physical activity can sharpen your mind, reduce your anxiety, lower your blood pressure, improve your sleep, and strengthen your body's ability to convert blood sugar into energy.
- Regular physical activity can improve your brain health, reduce your risk of eight different forms of cancer, and lower your risk for excess weight gain.
- Chronic health conditions improved by physical activity include osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, anxiety and depression.
Exercise also helps improve brain function in people with dementia, multiple sclerosis, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and Parkinson's disease.
"It's the cheapest prescription in the world, but most people don't want to fill it," said Dr Eileen Handberg, a professor of cardiovascular medicine with the University of Florida's College of Medicine.
No group unaffected
The weekly recommended amount of activity remains the same for adults – at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, combined with muscle-strengthening activity on at least two days.
Examples of moderate activity include brisk walking, ballroom dancing, water aerobics or pulling weeds, according to the AHA. Vigorous activity can involve running, swimming laps, bicycling fast, aerobic dancing or working a shovel or hoe in the garden.
The guidelines now recommend that children aged two to five be active throughout the day to enhance growth and development – at least three hours a day. Kids aged six through 17 are recommended to have at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.
Pregnant and postpartum women should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, while older adults should add balance training on top of their aerobic and muscle strengthening activities, the guidelines say.
"You need to get out and be active, whether you're a child or an adult, whether you're a pregnant woman, whether you have chronic disease – there's no group that isn't affected by these guidelines," said Handberg, a member of the American College of Cardiology's Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease Committee.
Getting more people moving
AHA President Dr Ivor Benjamin said the association will adopt the guidelines as its official recommendations for physical activity.
"We urge other health groups and interested parties across the country to adopt the guidelines and join us in committing to help ensure more people get moving," Benjamin said in a statement.
The guidelines should form the foundation for policies supporting physical education in school, bike and pedestrian infrastructure in cities, and workplace promotion of exercise, Benjamin and Handberg said.
Physical activity is so important it should constitute a "fifth" vital sign for doctors, Handberg said.
Any activity is better than none
"That ought to be a health care standard," Handberg said. "If you go to a health care provider, if I don't give you your BMI and I don't assess your physical activity, it's really not in the forefront of your mind, or mine as your provider."
Doctors hope that exercise will seem less daunting to people if everyone adopts the mindset that any physical activity is helpful.
"Patients should be reassured that they do not need large amounts of time or complex exercise regimens to be healthier," lead author Dr Paul Thompson wrote in an editorial accompanying the guidelines' publication online in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
"Any activity is better than none," continued Thompson, a cardiologist with Hartford Hospital in Connecticut. "It also is possible to perform all activities on one or two days per week, because this yields health benefits similar to those achieved through activity on three or more days per week."