While we’re all cooped up during the pandemic, the World Health Organization wants you to exercise.
The organization released new physical activity guidelines recommending that adults get at least 150 minutes — that’s 2.5 hours — of moderate to vigorous physical activity weekly.
The WHO’s new physical activity recommendations come at a time when the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc around the world — and being overweight or obese has been associated with an increased risk of severe illness and hospitalization from Covid-19.
The WHO previously recommended that adults ages 18 to 64 do either at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or minimum 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week, and those previous recommendations were made for healthy adults. The new recommendations now include people living with chronic conditions or a disability.
“Being physically active is critical for health and well-being — it can help add years to life and life to years,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a news release. “Every move counts, especially now as we manage the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic. We must all move every day — safely and creatively.”
Regardless of who you are, WHO has a few core principles in mind: Everyone can benefit from being more active than sedentary. Doing some physical activity, no matter what it is, is better than doing none. You can start small and slow and increase your frequency, intensity and duration over time. You can strengthen your muscles at home or in the gym (when safe). And physical activity is good for our hearts, bodies and minds.
What children and adolescents need
Children up to 17 need at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise each day, according to the new recommendations. The activities should be mostly aerobic, such as jogging or biking. Activities that strengthen muscle and bone are necessary, too.
For kids to be more active, they need to perceive their activity options as fun in addition to having the access and opportunity, said Dr. Stephanie Walsh, the medical director of Child Wellness at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. If you’re working with your children on that, try referring to “exercise” by the words going outside or playing.
If your kid finds walking boring, make it more enjoyable by doing scavenger hunts or playing I Spy. Adolescents could listen to music, video chat or use fitness apps.
“Generally children/adolescents always report they like to do physical activity to: 1) be with their friends 2) have fun 3) to learn something new,” said Craig A. Williams, a professor of pediatric physiology and health and director of the Children’s Health & Exercise Research Centre at the University of Exeter in England, via email.
Stay active together, mix it up, be encouraging and adjust what doesn’t work, Williams said. Dance if you hate running and roller skate if you prefer not to walk. Additionally, encourage your children to notice how they feel: If they sweated and breathed hard, they did well.
Young people are more immediately at risk for mental health problems than for chronic heart or metabolic conditions.
If you’re trying to get your teenagers to be more active, encouraging them to exercise in consideration of their mental health may be more effective than warning them about physical health impacts, “which may seem far off in a young person’s mind,” said Joseph Hayes, a principal research fellow in psychiatry at University College London, via email.
Pleasant, noncompetitive activities can help children develop the confidence, ability and enjoyment “to be active for the rest of your life,” Walsh said, influencing their self-esteem, mood and academic performance.
Guidance for adults
For adults up to age 64, getting at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, or minimum 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise, per week can reduce the risk for early death, heart disease, hypertension, cancer and Type 2 diabetes, the report said.
The guidelines also recommend that older adults, ages 65 and older, do at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity exercise or 75 or 150 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise throughout the week.
Exercises that strengthen all muscles should be done at least twice weekly. The same guidance goes for older adults, as much as they can — but they should prioritize balance and strength training a few days per week. Those can help prevent falls and related injuries, as well as declines in bone health and ability.
Work and home commitments, medical conditions and isolation can hinder hitting activity goals, said Dr. Adnan Qureshi, a professor of neurology at the Zeenat Qureshi Stroke Institute and the University of Missouri-Columbia.
“While large size indoor gathering is discouraged at this moment, outdoor activities … can still be good options,” said Yian Gu, an assistant professor of neurological sciences in the departments of neurology at epidemiology at Columbia University in New York City, via email. “There are also many options for family indoor activities, such as aerobic exercises (and) ping-pong.”
A few steps can enhance participation, Qureshi said:
- Understand how physical activity can improve your quality of life.
- Link the activity to another passion such as interaction with people, nature or technology.
- Quantify the time spent and distance covered.
- Incorporate activity into a regular scheduled routine.
- Consider the barriers in achieving goals and find strategies to overcome barriers with health professionals.
- Note the benefits you have achieved.
The possible benefits “must be balanced against potential safety risks and people should be cautious depending on underlying health conditions they may have,” said Dr. Richard Marottoli, a physician and professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut. “Check with your clinician before undertaking an exercise regimen.”
Advice for pregnant and postpartum women
Staying active during and after pregnancy has benefits for both mother and baby, including decreased risk of gestational diabetes, delivery complications and postpartum depression.
If pregnant and postpartum women have no underlying conditions or complications, the report said, they should get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic and strengthening activities each week. Stretching could be beneficial and soothing.
However, pregnant women should ensure that they’re hydrated, avoiding physically risky activities and be aware of any warning signs that would alert them to stop. Those include feeling dizzy, painful contractions or vaginal bleeding.
Guidelines for people with chronic conditions
A healthy lifestyle is still possible even if you have chronic conditions, the WHO report stressed.
“Some people with chronic conditions have challenges performing some of the recommended types and amounts of physical activity and may avoid physical activity all together because of concerns about riskos,” said Regina Davis, the associate executive director of public health policy and practice for the American Public Health Association.
“The type of physical activity one may be able to do may be different, but there are still benefits.”
Among people with diseases like cancer and heart disease, physical activity can reduce the risk for early death, disease progression and poor quality of life.
As much as they are able, people with chronic conditions should do at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate aerobics per week or at least 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous aerobics weekly. A few times per week, they should do strengthening and balance exercises to enhance their abilities to function well and prevent falls.
Tips for those with disabilities
For children with physical or intellectual disabilities, the main guidelines for children without disabilities apply — if the benefits outweigh any possible risks, according to their pediatrician or disability specialist. Activity can especially benefit those with conditions that impair cognitive function, such as attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder.
For adults with disabilities, activity can improve physical and cognitive function, strength and quality of life. The guidelines for adults apply to adults with disabilities as well.
Despite the amount of evidence for the effects of sedentary and active behaviors, the report said, we don’t know as much about the outcomes among people from underserved neighborhoods and with disabilities.
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It is “good to see WHO advocating for this, but recognizing that physical activity is such an important marker of health and well-being might help to embed its importance to society, not just medically but economically and culturally,” Williams at the University of Exeter said.
Moving is, after all, he added, “what our skeletons were designed to do.”