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Physical activity recommendations

This article explains the WHO recommended guidelines for physical activity for adults and older adults and the benefits they confer.
© University of Reading, INRAE, CHU, NOFIMA, VUB

The World Health Organisation Guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour provide evidence-based public health recommendations for children, adolescents, adults and older adults on the amount of physical activity required to provide health benefits and reduce health risks. The important thing to remember with physical activity, is that some physical activity is better than none. So if it’s not possible to reach these guideline targets, even small amounts of physical activity will benefit your health. These small amounts can then be built upon over time by gradually increasing their frequency, intensity and duration.

Here is a summary of the guidelines for older adults. You can also download the full report and we have included definitions of the terms in bold at the end of this article.

Adults and older adults

The weekly physical activity recommendations for substantial health benefits are:

  • at least 150 – 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity, OR
  • at least 75 – 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, OR
  • an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity throughout the week.

The more time you’re active, the greater the health benefit.

For additional health benefits, adults and older adults should also do muscle strengthening activities at moderate- or greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week.

To enable them to be independent and prevent falls, older adults should do varied multicomponent physical activity that emphasises balance and strength training at moderate- or greater intensity on 3 or more days a week. You’ll find details of practical exercises that can be done at home in Step 2.8.

These recommended amounts include activity at work, leisure, home or getting around. It all counts.

People living with chronic conditions

Physical activity can help reduce the negative impacts of chronic conditions:

  • for cancer survivors, it improves all-cause mortality, cancer-specific mortality, and risk of cancer recurrence or a second primary cancer.
  • for people living with hypertension, it improves cardiovascular disease mortality, disease progression, physical function, and health-related quality of life.
  • for people living with type-2 diabetes, it reduces rates of mortality from cardiovascular disease and indicators of disease progression.
  • for people living with HIV, it can improve physical fitness and mental health (reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression), and does not adversely affect disease progression.

Notes for those with chronic conditions

• Even when not able to meet the above recommendations, they should still engage in physical activity according to their abilities.

• Start by doing small amounts of physical activity and gradually increase the frequency, intensity and duration over time.

• It might be useful to consult with a physical activity specialist or health-care professional for advice on the types and amounts of activity appropriate for their individual needs.

• Pre-exercise medical clearance is generally not necessary for individuals without contraindications before beginning light- or moderate-intensity physical activity which doesn’t exceed the demands of brisk walking or everyday living.

The take-home message is that in all age groups and all circumstances, it’s important to limit the amount of time spent being sedentary. Replacing sedentary time with physical activity of any intensity (including light-intensity) gives health benefits.

Definitions

Intensity of activity How you feel Examples
Sedentary Slow heart rate, easy to hold a conversation, no sweating Reading, doing crosswords, watching TV
Low-intensity Normal heart rate, easy to hold a conversation, sweating a little Slow walk, cooking, shopping
Moderate-intensity Accelerated heart rate, easy to hold a conversation but not to sing, sweating Fast walk, gardening, aqua-aerobics
Vigorous-intensity Fast heart rate, difficult to hold a conversation, sweating a lot Running, swimming, dancing, cycling

Moderate-intensity: On a scale relative to an individual’s personal capacity, moderate-intensity physical activity is usually a 5 or 6 on a scale of 0–10.

Vigorous intensity: On a scale relative to an individual’s personal capacity, vigorous-intensity physical activity is usually a 7 or 8 on a scale of 0–10.

Major muscle groups: legs, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms.

Multicomponent physical activity: a combination of aerobic, muscle strengthening, and balance training.

Sedentary: Any waking behaviour characterised by low energy expenditure while sitting, reclining, or lying. Most desk-based office work, driving a car, and watching television are examples of sedentary behaviours; these can also apply to those unable to stand, such as wheelchair users.

WHO guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2020. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO
© University of Reading, INRAE, CHU, NOFIMA, VUB
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Ageing Well: Nutrition and Exercise for Older Adults

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