New WHO Physical Activity Guidelines Stress Exercise at All Ages

Woman and girl exercising

Key Takeaways

  • The World Health Organization has updated its exercise guidelines from its previous 2010 recommendations.
  • The suggestions do away with advice on getting at least 10 minutes of exercise per session, in favor of encouraging people to move any amount.
  • There is particular focus on reducing sedentary time, which researchers believe has contributed to significant health issues worldwide.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has published updated activity recommendations in the British Medical Journal, with a few key changes since its last guidelines were released in 2010.

One notable aspect is the range of ages and focus on special populations, with an emphasis on how everyone should not only be meeting certain weekly activity levels but ideally exceeding them for better health.

Not even babies get a free pass for lounging, for example. The WHO suggests at least 30 minutes daily in a prone position—also known as "tummy time"—and a 60-minute limit on restraint like being in a stroller.

Need for New Guidelines

In an accompanying commentary, the researchers note that the new recommendations were developed in response to growing concerns over the amount of sedentary behavior seen worldwide. The report found that about 25% of adults, and 80% of adolescents, don't meet the recommended levels of physical activity.

Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD

The evidence on this is clear. The health impacts of sedentary behavior should be a concern for everyone, not just health researchers.

— Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD

This can have a significant effect not just at the individual level but also for each country's public health efforts, according to report co-author Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD, professor of physical activity, lifestyle, and population health at the University of Sydney and editor-in-chief of BMJ Open Sports and Exercise Medicine.

"There needs to be an investment in physical activity as a priority in all countries," he says. "The evidence on this is clear. The health impacts of sedentary behavior should be a concern for everyone, not just health researchers."

The report noted that lower levels of activity can raise risks for:

  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Depression
  • Impaired cognitive function
  • Growth and development for children and teens
  • Falls and mobility concerns for older people

How Much Activity You Should Get

The new WHO guidelines outline activity based on age, and for the first time, also include specific recommendations for pregnancy, postpartum, chronic conditions, and disability.

Adults aged 18 to 64 without medical issues should do at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity. They should also do muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups on two or more days per week.

If you're over 65, the WHO suggests adding functional balance and strength training at moderate or greater intensity on at least three days per week to prevent falls and improve overall function.

For children and adolescents, the guidelines are per day instead of per week, with the recommendation for at least an hour of moderate-to-vigorous intensity daily, along with muscle-strengthening activities at least three days a week.

Unlike those for adults, the recommendations for children also add sleep into the equation based on age. Guidelines also suggest that kids and teens should reduce their amount of recreational screen time.

Reducing Sedentary Time

Compared to the previous guidelines, this set is much more urgent about the need to decrease sedentary time. The recommendations include:

  • Some physical activity is better than doing none.
  • By becoming more active throughout the day in relatively simple ways, people can achieve the recommended activity levels.
  • Physical activity is one of the leading risk factors for non-communicable disease mortality. People who are sedentary can have up to 30% increased risk of death compared to those who are active.
  • Countries, communities, and workplaces need to take action with more opportunities to be active, with policies aimed at increasing physical activity and strategies for more movement.

Previous guidelines had suggested a minimum duration of each exercise session of at least 10 minutes. Now, the emphasis here is that any movement counts, even if it's just for a few minutes at a time.

"We suggest people see the weekly recommended physical activity levels as the minimum," says Stamatakis. "The best aim would be to exceed them. This is supported by growing scientific research about the serious health problems that can come with large amounts of sedentary time."

Activity Over Exercise

Another change from the earlier guidelines is acknowledging a wider range of exercise types. Stamatakis says is designed to highlight how getting more movement might be as easy as cleaning the house, taking a walk, or doing some gardening.

Although more structured fitness is important and helpful, he says the hope is to get people used to more movement. From there, they can keep building on and exceed those minimum guidelines.

Baruch Vainshelboim, PhD

In our research, as well as many other studies, exercise is shown to enhance immune function and improve your metabolic state and regulate your hormonal system. All of those are very important right now.

— Baruch Vainshelboim, PhD

A particularly crucial part of the recommendations is strength training in some form, which is suggested for nearly all ages, except children under age 5. Older adults, in particular, need to be doing some type of strength-enhancing activity at least three times per week to maintain mobility and overall function.

In fact, Stamatakis says, if older people are short on time and have to choose between aerobic activity and strength training, he suggests the latter. "The research is clear on the benefits of this type of training," he says. "The value of building strength becomes critically important as we get older."

For example, a study on bone density and muscle mass noted that strength training is one of the most effective ways to combat loss of both of those as we age, providing greater advantages when it comes to staying mobile, flexible, and independent.

What This Means For You

The main gist of the WHO guidelines can be summed up as: Move more, every day, no matter your age or condition. If you're not a workout enthusiast, that's okay. It's just important to find some activities that keep you moving and improve your strength and mobility.

3 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Bull FC, Al-Ansari SS, Biddle S, et al. World Health Organization 2020 guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour. Br J Sports Med. 2020;54(24):1451-1462.

  2. Stamatakis E, Bull FC. Putting physical activity in the ‘must-do’ list of the global agenda. Br J Sports Med. 2020;54(24):1445-1446. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2020-103509

  3. Padilla Colón CJ, Molina-Vicenty IL, Frontera-Rodríguez M, et al. Muscle and bone mass loss in the elderly population: Advances in diagnosis and treatmentJ Biomed (Syd). 2018;3:40-49. doi:10.7150/jbm.23390

By Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition.