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Move more, our lives depend on it: New global recommendations for physical activity revealed

Physical inactivity contributes to four to five million deaths worldwide each year.

It was with this in mind that University of Southern Queensland’s Professor Stuart Biddle – along with health experts across the world – set out to develop the global recommendations on physical activity and sedentary behaviour.  

The World Health Organisation (WHO) today (November 26) released its first revised guidelines for physical activity in a decade. 

Professor Biddle was among 27 international experts – one of only three from Australia – chosen by WHO to be involved in the Guideline Development Group. 

The group undertook a 16-month process which focused on an extensive review of the best available evidence from 2017 to 2019.

For the first time, the guidelines highlight the risks of sedentary behaviour, recommending adults break up long periods of sitting by getting up and moving around regularly. The guidelines also say children should limit the amount of recreational screen time.

They also made specific recommendations on physical activity in sub-populations such as pregnant women and those living with chronic conditions or disability.

Although the recommended amount of physical activity for children and adolescents, adults, and older adults remains relatively unchanged, Professor Biddle said a subtle but important change to the guidelines was that an aerobic activity no longer has to last at least 10 minutes to bring benefits.

“This is great news because it means every little bit of exercise you do now counts,” he said.

“This might encourage people to start parking their car further away in the car park to get in more steps, take the stairs instead of the lift or walk to a colleague’s desk instead of emailing them.

“There’s plenty of easy and realistic changes you can make to incorporate more physical activity into your day.”

The new guidelines recommend adults should do at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity or a combination of both, as well as engage in strengthening activities that involve all the major muscle groups at least two days a week.

The same recommendations apply to older adults, adults with chronic conditions and adults with a disability. 

Children aged 5-17 should be averaging an hour a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day, while women who are pregnant or in the postpartum period should try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week.

Professor Biddle said the important message was any physical activity is better than none, and more is better.

“These new guidelines highlight how moving more and sitting less is the key to keeping physically and mentally fit,” he said. 

“It doesn’t mean you need to join a gym or invest in some expensive equipment. Any type of activity that raises your heart rate and helps build muscle strength is fine.

“Our lives depend on us moving more.” 

Professor Biddle, an expert in physical activity and sedentary behaviour, specialising in behaviour change, said physical inactivity was a major health crisis with many Australians, like the rest of the world, becoming less active.

Current estimates of physical activity levels in Australia indicate 85 per cent of adults do not achieve the recommended amount of physical activity and muscle strengthening exercise, while just one in five children meet the guidelines for physical activity of at least 60 minutes per day.

The most common barriers to exercise are a perceived lack of time, cost, not finding exercise enjoyable, poor access to walking and cycling paths and recreation facilities, and car-dominated environments.

Professor Biddle said the new guidelines were a wake-up call for political leaders and policy makers to make physical activity a public health priority.

“It is estimated physical inactivity contributes to around 16,000 Australian deaths annually, and when combined with other factors such as obesity, it is ranked alongside tobacco smoking as the leading risk factor for disease burden in Australia,” he said

“If we’re going to be serious about increasing all forms of physical activity, then comprehensive action by governments and health authorities is required.

“Australia must adopt a physical activity plan, which other countries have done, to make it easy for people to look after themselves and to experience the social, physical and mental health benefits of regular physical activity. 

“Back in the 1970s, the ‘Life. Be in It’ campaign was arguably the most recognisable and successful health promotion in Australia and was lauded across the world.

“Since then, sadly, Australia has dropped the ball on physical activity. 

“What’s required is strong political support and investment in action we know will work, as well as transforming our communities into physical activity-friendly environments where people of all ages can get their recommended amount of physical activity every day.”

Man leaning against a wall smiling.
Professor Stuart Biddle was a member of the World Health Organisation’s Guideline Development Group to decide on the new global recommendations for physical activity and sedentary behaviour.