The official word on how much physical activity we need each day

Every move we make leads to better health, says the World Health Organization – as its new guidelines reveal our sedentary lifestyles are doing serious damage.

“Physical activity of any type, and any duration, can improve health and wellbeing, but more is always better, and if you must spend a lot of time sitting still, whether at work or school, you should do more physical activity to counter the harmful effects of sedentary behaviour.”

That was the advice from World Health Organization health promotion director Dr Ruediger Krech at this week’s launch of WHO’s new guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour.

WHO’s physical activity guidelines have been overhauled for the first time in a decade.

And the overarching focus is that any movement during the day – and any time we spend away from the office chair or couch – is a positive for our health.

How much physical activity do you need each week?

For the first time, the guidelines highlight the importance of sitting less. For adults they recommend:

  • At least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week, or at least 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous physical activity a week;
  • Muscle-strengthening activities involving all major muscle groups on two or more days a week;
  • Increasing moderate intensity aerobic activity to more than 300 minutes, or do more than 150 minutes of vigorous physical activity, for additional health benefits; and
  • Limiting the amount of time being sedentary and replace that time with physical activity of any intensity, including light exercise such as walking.

Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute physical activity laboratory head Professor David Dunstan says replacing sitting down with any movement at all is likely to lead to health benefits.

“The message is to sit less, and move more and more often,” adds Prof Dunstan, who is recruiting Melbourne office workers with type 2 diabetes to study the effects of reducing and breaking up sitting time.

The serious side effects of sitting

WHO says one in four adults and four out of five adolescents don’t do enough physical activity and there’s growing evidence of the harmful effects of a sedentary lifestyle.

“There’s a strong association between sitting and type 2 diabetes, because sitting elevates blood glucose levels. Sitting increases blood fats, too, which can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and it’s also associated with increased blood pressure and inflammation,” says Prof Dunstan.

Whenever we move – whether it’s hanging washing on the line, taking the dog for a stroll or mowing the lawn – we use our muscles and that has health benefits.

“As soon as we move, the more energy we burn and the faster we move, the more energy we expend. When we are moving, that improves blood flow and has a positive influence on blood pressure,” says Prof Dunstan.

“Our muscles are the body’s largest user of blood glucose – they take glucose out of the blood to use for energy and that helps reduce the risk of diabetes.”

Think outside the gym

You may think of physical activity as a dedicated gym workout, a Pilates session, or even a power walk.

Instead, WHO’s new guidelines focus on accumulating bits of varied activity.

“WHO is sending the message that even a minute or five minutes of activity is better than none, so think about what you do throughout the whole day,” says Prof Dunstan.

Written by Sarah Marinos.