I Like to Move It, Move It.
Being active is good, right? Right. Blog’s over, we’re good, time to go home.
But wait. What does “being active” mean? And how much? And how often?
These are questions I’m often asked by patients who are ready to add regular physical activity into their routine. And while this definitely looks different for every. single. person, a set of guidelines exist to, well, help guide our recommendations. The first edition of these guidelines known as the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans was issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 2008. They were originally designed to help people understand the types, frequency, and intensity of physical activity that may promote health benefits. This week, HHS released their second edition of these guidelines, and I’m going to help break them down for you. I always take these seemingly “one size fits all” guidelines with a grain of salt, but I still think these are good for all of us to review and find ways to personalize them for our own lives.
This second edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans is based on the abundance of new science related to exercise and health that has come about since the last edition. This edition looks at the proven benefits of physical activity on different ages and populations, and explores different aspects of health including brain health, cancer sites, and fall-related injuries. There are new guidelines for preschool age children, as well as a discussion on additional benefits for older adults and those with chronic health conditions (feel free to visit the link to learn more about the guidelines for the little ones, as it’s not something I address in this post). The guidelines now also examine more in depth the immediate and long term benefits that activity has overall on how people feel, function, and sleep. Lastly, HHS states the strategies they offer to increase activity levels have been tested.
I’m going to go through some of the highlighted changes in this edition of the guidelines, and I encourage you to think of ways that you can see these working for you in your day-to-day routine. I’ll give you some of my ideas, too!
1. There are more benefits from physical activity than we thought.
This seems like a no-brainer, but as you may already know about me, I like to structure my beliefs and recommendations about nutrition and health around actual research. But the research is now showing that physical activity has benefits on its own, independently from things like having a good diet (which I strongly believe you should definitely still do!).
Need a place to start? I’ve linked HHS’s Activity Planner below. There is so much to be said about planning things ahead, so if it’s helpful for you to do that with meals and other aspects of your health, you may want to give something like that a try with your exercise. For me, if I plan things out (at least roughly), I’m more likely to stick with my activity goals. This also includes the natural activity that happens throughout my day. If I’m working at my desk all day, I’m planning a few minutes here and there to get up from my chair and walk, squat, anything (maybe even a plank if I’m at home… maybe).
The health benefits of incorporating exercise or natural physical activity are independent of weight. This means there is no “ideal” time to start a plan of physical activity, and anyone can gain benefit anytime and at any size.
2. Adults should move more, but not necessarily always in the gym.
The recommendation that we need to move more hasn’t changed. Research shows adults gain the most health benefits from physical activity when they are achieving:
At least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week. Examples of this are brisk walking, dancing (yes!), biking at less than 10 mph, or playing doubles tennis. Research shows those who meet this goal have a 33% lower risk of all-cause mortality than those who are not physically active. There is even more benefit shown when you surpass 300 minutes in a week.
Or at least 75 minutes to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise, including jogging or running, biking at a faster speed, kick boxing, heavy yard work, step aerobics (another yes!), or swimming laps. Research shows these types of aerobic activity should be ideally spread throughout the week (bye to the idea of a weekend warrior).
Muscle-strengthening activity (aka weight lifting or body-weight/weight-bearing exercises, or using resistance bands) that involve all major muscle groups are recommended at least two days per week. Improvements in muscle strength are often shown with 2-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions each of various exercises.
Don’t forget to add in balance and flexibility activities as well. I am a HUGE fan of free You Tube videos that you can do right at home for these types of exercise. There is a ton of stuff when it comes to HIIT, yoga, and other body-weight activity that you can do in your living room. There are great ones that involve props too, and having a few light handheld weights around can really take these up a notch. Having working out be less of a commitment (i.e. finding an outfit to wear to the gym, packing it to bring to work, going after work when you’re tired, the list goes on) can make it a lot easier to stick to your activity goals and still get all the benefits. It’s important to note here that the guidelines specify that the type and intensity are less important than the total amount of physical activity per week.
I think the notion around exercise is sometimes if you’re not doing it in the gym or a fitness studio, it’s not good enough. And I think a lot of us know this isn’t true, but it’s still hard to get out of that mindset. Take these guidelines as a challenge to find more natural ways to move more during your day, especially if the gym isn’t your thing. And if you don’t know that shopping is definitely cardio, then don’t knock it til’ you try it.
3. Move more, sit less (alternative title: Get Up Offa That Thing!)
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as I’m sure you’ve also heard the phrase “sitting is the new cancer.” Although a little harsh, it isn’t totally wrong. New evidence found a stronger relationship between increased sedentary behavior (i.e. desk jobs, sitting while watching TV, reclining, etc.) and an increased risk of chronic health conditions. This includes cardiovascular disease (and cardiovascular disease mortality), type two diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer of the colon, endometrium, and lung, and all-cause mortality. Specifically, sedentary behavior is defined by HHS as any activity that has an energy expenditure level that is just a tiny bit above resting.
HHS supports the notion that any physical activity, and I mean any, can help to reduce these risks. So just know that no amount of exercise is too little to help improve your health and offset your overall health risks. How great is that! This is especially true when we think about moving throughout the day. So take a quick walk after lunch, take the stairs as much as possible, walk to your coworker’s desk instead of calling, or park further away… these are all small but powerful steps to increasing your natural activity throughout the day so you can be less sedentary. Plus, I think it’s just good for your mental health to take a minute away from your computer (and/or your coworkers too…). You’ll come back refreshed and ready to get back to whatever you were working on (or pumped up to tell your noisy coworker Karen to STFU. Come on, Karen.).
This is also different than what was previously published. In the first edition of the guidelines, only exercise lasting at least 10 minutes was considered adequate in contributing toward health benefits. As I stated above, we now know that any kind of physical activity in any amount is beneficial. Of course, more vigorous or longer activity will have more benefits, but any starting point is a good starting point.
4. Exercise gives you immediate feel-goods...
Evidence now supports the fact that you can gain health benefits immediately after working out. If you exercise regularly, you’ll know that it often has a hugely positive effect on your mood, anxiety, and quality of sleep, but it also immediately helps with blood pressure and insulin sensitivity.
Often times I talk with my patients about alternative activities they can do when they are stressed, tired, anxious, sad, lonely, or whatever else instead of mindlessly eating (if that’s a pattern we’ve identified). Knowing that you’ll get an immediate rush of those feel-goods after exercising, it can be an excellent option to try. That’s not to say it’s easy to put on your sneakers for a run or throw a You-Tube HIIT video on at home instead of reaching for your favorite comforting snacks, but I promise you’ll feel some sort of positive boost afterwards that may help ward away those behaviors you are trying to change.
5. …and even more long-term benefits!
Here are some of the new long-term health benefits that the guidelines have pulled from more recent research in all age groups:
Youth: Improvements in cognition, bone health, fitness, and heart health, and a reduction in risk of depression.
Adults: Helps prevent 8 types of cancer (bladder, breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, stomach, and lung). Helps reduce the risk of dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease), all-cause mortality, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and depression. Improves bone health, physical function, and overall quality of life. Helps prevent weight regain after initial weight loss. Yes to all of that.
Older adults: Decreases the risk of falls and injuries from falls (a big deal, as many older adults sometimes reduce physical activity due to fear of falling and injury!).
Pregnant women: Reduces the risk of postpartum depression.
All ages: Reduces the risk of excessive weight gain and helps people maintain a healthy weight. —> one quick note on this: A “healthy weight” really changes person to person. A healthy weight for a person of my height may not be healthy for me, or it may not be a weight I could ever weigh. I hear so many people say I want to get to this weight or that weight, but they answer “no” when I ask if they’ve ever been at that weight. Weight, to some degree, is truly just a number, and we should consider looking at other things to determine what exactly is healthy for your body. How your clothes fit, your energy levels, your ability and strength to do activities that you want to do are all alternative ways to look at your weight.
6. Exercise helps to manage your existing symptoms.
New evidence suggests that regular physical activity not only helps to prevent and reduce the risk of different chronic conditions, but it can also help manage the conditions that you may already have. Research shows that the list of these conditions has grown. Activity has now been shown to decrease pain in those with osteoarthritis, help hypertension and type 2 diabetes from worsening, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improve cognition in individuals with dementia, MS, ADHD, and Parkinson’s disease.
How powerful is this when you think about preventing the progression of a certain disease? So many of my patients come to me because they either want to get off a certain medication to help with their blood pressure, or they want to manage the amount of insulin they need for their diabetes, or they want to avoid the future need for medication all together. Clearly exercise plays a crucial role in this, which is perhaps especially true at the time of diagnosis. Taking your health into your hands and making a commitment and plan to incorporate physical activity in your life is something you can do right now if this resonates with you.
Resources from HHS
HHS released a number of free resources related to the new guidelines, and I’ve shared few of them below.
The tips in these videos may seem really simple, but that’s what I like about them! These are real tips for incorporating activity and finding motivation to do so, and these are tips that I actually use myself. Also, I’m obsessed with the man jamming out with his headphones while cleaning, that’s exactly what I do!
Below is the Move Your Way Activity Planner that helps you plan the type, amount, and frequency of physical activity you plan on doing during your week. If planning and logging your exercise is your thing, this might be a good resource to try!
Of course, there’s no way these guidelines can be personalized to every individual person. The one size fits all notion can feel frustrating, but if nothing else, I hope this overview of the new Physical Activity Guidelines reaffirms your understanding of how important physical activity is for your overall physical, mental, and emotional health. If you feel motivated to commit to a plan of physical activity - great! Let’s start now, because why not? If you think about it, 150 minutes of aerobic activity per week equates to just over 21 minutes per day. Because the recommendations no longer say that you have to move at least 10 minutes at a time to gain the benefits, this means you can add five minutes here and five minutes there to meet that 21-22 minutes per day. Doable? Something I’d like you to take away from these guidelines, because it’s one of the bigger takeaways for me, is that any type and amount of exercise is beneficial for your health. No matter what your starting point is, it’s a perfect place to get moving, no matter what that looks like for you.
Just a few little disclaimers: Please check with your doctor before starting or increasing a physical activity regimen, especially if you have any health conditions that would be impacted. I also am not an affiliate, contractor, or employee of any sort of HHS. I am just spreading their word and resources to those who are interested.