Why You Need to Get Off Your Butt Right Now
New research reveals just about any movement battles the deadly effects of sitting around
Your brain and body suffer and your life is likely to be shorter if you sit around too much. We all know that. But exercise is, well, hard. Good news: A daily dose of physical activity of just about any sort — from gardening or dancing to walking or active sports — can significantly counteract those negative effects, a new study finds.
The new research, detailed in a special issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, provide the basis for updated recommendations on physical activity from the World Health Organization (WHO) that aim to encourage everyone, including children, pregnant women and people with chronic conditions or disabilities to move more, for at least a measly half-hour each day.
The benefits are far-reaching:
“Regular physical activity is key to preventing and helping to manage heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and cancer, as well as reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, reducing cognitive decline, improving memory and boosting brain health,” according to a WHO statement. “Being physically active is critical for health and well-being — it can help to add years to life and life to years,” says WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Every move counts, especially now as we manage the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic. We must all move every day — safely and creatively.”
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Counteracting the effects of sitting
The study, based on data from 44,000 middle-aged and older people wearing activity trackers, found that sitting for 10 hours or more a day significantly raised the risk of premature death, especially for people who were relatively sedentary the other 14 hours in a day. That confirms previous research on the ills of inactivity.
However, people who sit this much yet also do about a half-hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day largely escape the fates of total couch potatoes, on average.
Based on these results and extensive vast amounts of previous research on the topic, the WHO now suggests 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate physical activity each week, or between 75 and 150 minutes of intense activity (or some combination of the two) and to include at least two weekly sessions of strength training.
“These new guidelines highlight how important being active is for our hearts, bodies and minds, and how the favorable outcomes benefit everyone, of all ages and abilities,” says Fiona Bull, PhD, a WHO director who led development of the new guidelines.
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Examples of activities that work
Moderate activity is defined by the researchers as a mild level of breathlessness when it’s still possible to talk. Examples: brisk walking, dancing, or raking leaves. Much previous research confirms the benefits of these activities.
Vigorous activity causes breathing to increase to the point that normal talking is difficult. Examples: cycling, running, swimming or other sports, climbing stairs, digging the garden. Health experts agree that vigorous activity is not necessary to achieve important health benefits, but it can achieve the same benefits in less time than moderate activity.
Light activity like casual strolling does not count overtly in the new recommendations. But the researchers emphasize that any amount of physical activity, at any level of intensity, is better than none, and people starting from zero physical fitness are encouraged to begin at any level of movement possible, and build from there. Past studies have shown that just about any physical activity is good for the brain and the body.
Strength training can involve weights or resistance bands, or body-weight only, as with push-ups (push-ups are known to be really, really good for you). Strengthening exercises can be combined with aerobic workouts, too, by moving from one exercise to the next with no rest between.
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Anyone can benefit
The new study supports new, specific WHO recommendations for various groups and exempts no one who is capable of moving in some fashion:
- People 65 and older should focus workouts on balance and strength training at moderate or greater intensity at least three days a week.
- Pregnant women should be physically active — doing both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities — throughout pregnancy and after the birth.
- Children and adolescents should average an hour a day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.
The recommendations are considered timely given how the pandemic has forced gym closures and left many of us cooped up.
“People can still protect their health and offset the harmful effects of physical inactivity,” says Emmanuel Stamatakis, of the University of Sydney, co-editor of the journal’s special issue. “There are plenty of indoor options that don’t need a lot of space or equipment, such as climbing the stairs, active play with children or pets, dancing, or online yoga or Pilates classes.”