What Do the Revised Physical Activity Guidelines Mean for You?

With Admiral Brett P. Giroir, MD, Tim Church, MD, PhD, and Jennifer S. Lee, MD, PhD

If you find yourself lounging around in your pajamas all weekend because you didn't realize how little it might take to boost your health; there’s good news! And we all need a bit of good news. The Department of Health and Human Services just released revised guidelines on how much physical activity to aim for.1  

The second edition of these Physical Activity Guidelines was introduced at the American Heart Association (AHA) Scientific Sessions to coincide with their publication in the Journal of the American Medical Association.2 The authors spell out how important exercise is for healthy aging, and yet the majority of Americans still aren’t buying into it.

Strength training twice a week shown to foster healthy aging.  Any and all physical activity is beneficial but adding muscle strengthening exercise is recommended. Photo: 123rf

At least three in five adults don’t do any muscle-strengthening activities,3 according to findings published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, despite persuasive evidence that exercise is key in order to stay healthy and reduce the risks of common chronic diseases. 

“If we can just get 25% of inactive people to be active and meet the recommendations, almost 75,000 deaths would be prevented in the United States,” Admiral Brett P. Giroir, MD, Assistant Secretary for Health,1 said at a press conference announcing the updated recommendations for physical activity. Yet Americans don’t seem to be getting the message about exercise.

The new guidelines stress the benefits gained but doing even just a little bit. So what you say?! Exercise has so many benefits.1 Not only can physical activity lessen your risks for conditions that are already present, like decreasing the pain of osteoarthritis and onset of type 2 diabetes but it can also reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression as well as improve sleep. All of these factors have an impact on how well you’ll age.

All Forms of Physical Activity Count: Just Do Something, Anything 

As to what kind of exercise is necessary—both aerobic (activity that raises your heart rate) and strength training are important, says Tim Church, MD, PhD, an adjunct professor at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Examples of basic muscle-strengthening exercises include squats, lunges, planks, and use of hand weights or resistance bands.

You’ll want to do both pulling exercises and pushing movements like presses. Or, opt for yoga or Tai chi to gain the same benefits. Muscle (strength) training is crucial, especially as people get older, he says.

“As you age, you lose as much as 3 to 5% of our muscle every year, starting at about 45 to 50 years so it’s important to preserve muscle strength through exercise,” Dr. Church says. “so that you are able to chase your grandchildren around, get up from a chair, and to be able to get dressed in the morning so we are talking quality of life health.”4

Doing a little muscle training doesn’t have to be time-consuming, Dr. Church says. All you need is 20 minutes, two to three times a week, to work all your large muscles. Often, he tells EndocrineWeb, “people don’t get motivated to move more until something happens to them or to one of their friends. Don’t postpone working your muscles. It’s not just about strength, it’s also  about preventing illness, which is far better than trying to recover from a fall or other disabling incident.”

“You want to be living the life you wish for at age 70,” he says. “The worst scenario is becoming the 70-year-old who is bedridden when you can be the Septuagenarian whose days are full of your favorite activities. Exercise is the thing that can help people maintain the quality of their lives.”

Even more reason to add strength training to your weekly routine—Exercise is a great way to help manage your blood sugar, says Dr. Church. “People forget that the muscle is a very important metabolic tissue. It plays a role in controlling blood sugar by storing blood sugar until it is needed and then releasing it. If your muscles aren’t doing what they should, then you will have a harder time controlling your blood sugar. And if you have prediabetes, without making any changes, you are on your way toward developing diabetes.”

And there’s another reason to include strength training. Your risk of heart attack or stroke decreases by up to 70%, particularly if you have type 2 diabetes, just by lifting weights at least once a week,5 according to Duck-Chul Lee, PhD, associate professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University in Ames, co-author of a study published the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. In following 13,000 adults, they were able to confirm that resistance training reduces the likelihood that these individuals will develop heart disease and death.

Time to Talk Yourself Into Moving Even A Little

Whatever your motivating factor, by adding strength training into your weekly routine, in the same way as you brush your teeth daily, you will anticipate doing it regularly, says Dr. Church. There are tons of exercise programs available online and in apps to help you find something that will fit your interest and comfort level.

For many, waking up in the morning and getting your exercise done is a sure way to establish a positive start to the day. For others, walking at lunch and again after dinner works best. And some people find have the regular rhythm of going to yoga, a local adult education class, or the gym when both convenience and affordable does the trick.

Since there are a wide variety of programs, you’ll see the best results if you are able to work with someone who can create an exercise routine for you. Just one session with a personal trainer at the local gym can be enough to get your own your way. “You‘ll want a program tailored to your personal needs,” says Dr. Church.

You can get your aerobic and strength training exercises in smaller increments? The most significant change in the new physical activity guidelines aims to make meeting daily goals much easier to meet.1 There’s no longer a time-limiting requirement to being active. So even if you have just five minutes to walk, or do one weight-lifting exercise, it counts!  

Age Better: More Reasons to Expand Your Physical Activity 

For adults, the recommendations for cardio-based exercise (that boosts your heart rate) remain the same: 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity. What’s new is the need for everyone to add muscle-strengthening activities two to three days per week.1

For older adults,1 the goal stresses “multicomponent physical activity that incorporates balance exercises with aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities,” says Dr. Church. Since the risk of bone fractures increases with age, maintaining good balance means reducing your risk of falls. So when you walk, include a few hills rather than just traversing a flat route, or put the treadmill on an incline to get the same good benefit.

Any effort to move more will up your chances of aging well. After all, inactivity causes 10% of the premature mortality in the United States,1 according to the Department of Health and Human Services. And one in five adults has metabolic syndrome, meaning they have at least three risk factors: excess abdominal fat, high total blood cholesterol, low high-density lipoprotein (“good”) cholesterol, high blood pressure, and elevated blood glucose levels.6

More Reasons for Women Reaching Menopause, Children to Move More 

One group of adults who can benefit significantly from increased physical activity are women in the menopausal transition because of an increased risk for metabolic syndrome, which predisposes them to both heart disease and type 2 diabetes.6

“We found that greater physical activity was associated with recovery from metabolic syndrome,” Jennifer S. Lee, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine at Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, California, who was the lead author of the study. “The evidence suggests that women who are at risk for metabolic syndrome may be able to recover from it by upping their level of physical activity.”6

These risks can be reduced simply by exercising more (and eating fewer calories),3 writes Dr. Duck-Chul Lee.

“Since we didn’t assign women to do more physical activity but rather we observed them over time and saw an association between more physical activity and a reduction in the risks for metabolic syndrome, our study results are not definitive because the design was observational, not interventional,” Dr. Jennifer Lee tells EndocrineWeb.

“Physical activity levels in this country typically decrease with age as diabetes and obesity increase. However, it is not clear yet if people are less active leading to the development of these diseases or they become less active after these conditions develop so more research is required,”3 says Dr. Duck-Chul Lee. “We know that a lack of time is one of the major reasons that women and others don’t exercise.”   

“Although it is not yet clear precisely how exercise impacts menopause in women, it is clear that they should participate in some physical activity, including resistance exercise since they are more susceptible to osteoporosis and cardiovascular diseases after menopause,”6 Dr. Jennifer Lee says.

In pre-school aged children (3- to 5-year-olds), the physical activity guidelines indicate a need for them to be physically active throughout the day, with a target of three hours of activity daily. Children and teenagers (6 to 17 years) should engage in an at least one hour or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily.1


In the United States, low levels of adherence to the guidelines for physical activity mean that close to $117 billion in annual healthcare costs are “directly attributable” to not meeting the guidelines,1 Dr. Giroir says, and this represents a “threat to our national security, because obesity disqualifies nearly one-third of American youth aged 17 to 24 years for military service.”

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