With New Year's resolutions only a few weeks away, there's good news for those resolving to exercise more: You don't have to go big or go home. Even short bursts of activity can be good for your health.
That's according to federal physical activity guidelines released last month that put a new emphasis on getting sedentary people to move, even for a few minutes at a time. The old guidelines from a decade ago said people needed to be physically active for at least 10 consecutive minutes to improve their health.
"Those little things add up and can have some real benefit," said Dr. Katrina Piercy, a physical activity and nutrition advisor at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who was part of the team that wrote the guidelines. "The biggest benefits come from someone going from doing nothing to doing something, even if it's just taking the stairs instead of the elevator. The main message is, move more and sit less."
The new guidelines set a higher bar for what it called "substantial" health benefits: Adults should get at least 150 minutes to 300 minutes a week of moderate-level physical activity – or 75 minutes to 150 minutes a week of vigorous activity. Additional benefits come from doing muscle-strengthening activities at least two days a week, the guidelines said.
People don't have to do only planned, structured exercise like jogging, playing soccer or working out at the gym to meet the recommendations.
"These guidelines make it clear you don't have to run a marathon to get your heart rate pumping," said Dr. Mercedes Carnethon, an epidemiologist and vice chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern University. "There are many ways to achieve that, from dancing to playing with a child at the park or walking in the mall when the weather's cold."
The new guidelines say children ages 3 to 5 should be physically active throughout the day – a change from the previous advice that focused on kids 6 and older. Children ages 6 to 17 should get 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise each day.
The advice for older adults is the same as for younger adults, with one difference: Older adults are advised to mix balance training with muscle-strengthening and aerobic activities.
"For older adults, multi-component physical activity really makes a difference in preventing falls and lowering the risk of injury if they do fall," Piercy said. "It helps older adults carry on their regular activities and maintain independence in their living environment."
Being physically active is also good for the brain. It improves sleep and reduces the risk of dementia, depression and anxiety, the guidelines said.
"We've seen a huge growth in evidence over the last 10 years in the brain health side of physical activity," Piercy said. "Runners often mention the 'runner's high' feeling they get from endorphins, and you can start to feel some of these same benefits after taking a walk for just a few minutes."
While physical activity levels have improved slightly in recent years, only about 20 percent of American adults get the recommended amount of physical activity. Carnethon said the new guidelines could help raise those numbers by encouraging people to be physically active whenever and however they choose.
"Physical activity is like personalized medicine: There's no single prescription for reaching 150 minutes a week," she said. "You can tailor it to your schedule, interests and lifestyle. You just have to get off the couch and find a way that works for you."
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