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What is Regular Physical Activity?

Regular Physical Activity

WHO defines physical exercise as any movement of the skeletal muscles requiring energy expenditure. Regular Physical activity includes all movements, whether they are done for leisure, to travel to and from a destination, or to perform a job. Physical activity of moderate and vigorous intensity both improves health.

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Walking, cycling, wheeling and sports are all popular ways to stay active. Anyone can do them, regardless of their skill level.

It has been proven that regular physical activity can help manage and prevent noncommunicable illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. It can also help prevent hypertension and maintain a healthy weight.

How much physical activity is recommended per day?

WHO guidelines and recommendations give details on the amount of physical activity required for good health for specific age groups and population groups.

WHO is recommended by:

Children under the age of 5 years old

Infants (less that 1 year old) should:

  • Be physically active in different ways throughout the day, especially through interactive floor play. More is better. This includes 30 minutes of tummy time spread out throughout the day for those who are not mobile.
  • Restraints of more than one hour (e.g. prams, strollers, highchairs, or strapped to a caregiver’s back) are not allowed.
    • It is not advisable to spend too much time on the screen.
  • It is recommended that a caregiver read and tell stories to a sedentary person.
  • Sleep for 14-17 hours (0-3 months) or 12-16 hours (4-11 months) in good quality, including naps.

Children aged 1-2 should:

  • Spend at least 180 minutes a day in different types of physical activity of any intensity. This includes moderate to vigorous physical activity.
  • Not be restrained more than one hour at a given time (e.g. in a pram/stroller, high chair, or strapped to a caregiver’s back), or sit for long periods.
    • It is not recommended that children under 1 years old spend time on screens (watching TV, videos or computer games).
    • The maximum amount of time spent watching a screen should not exceed 1 hour for children under 2 years.
  • It is recommended that sedentary people engage in storytelling and reading with their caregiver.
  • Sleep 11-14 hours, including naps.

A Children aged 3-4 should:

  • Spend at least 180 minutes a day in different types of physical activity of any intensity. At least 60 minutes should be moderate to vigorous intensity.
  • Not be restrained more than one hour at a given time (e.g. prams/strollers), or sit for long periods of time.
    • The maximum amount of time that a person should spend watching a screen is 1 hour.
  • Encourage your caregiver to read and tell stories with you when you are sedentary.
  • Have 10-13 hours of quality sleep. This may include a short nap.

Children and adolescents aged between 5-17

  • Every week, you should aim to do 60 minutes of moderate-to vigorous intensity physical activity.
  • At least three days per week, you should include vigorous-intensity exercises, along with those that build muscle and strengthen bones.
  • Limit the time you spend sitting, especially when it comes to screen time.

Adults aged between 18 and 64

  • Do 150-300 minutes moderate intensity aerobic physical activity.
  • Or at least 75-150 minute of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination between moderate- and vigorous intensity activity throughout the week
  • You should also perform muscle-strengthening exercises at moderate to high intensity, involving all major muscle groups. Do this 2 or more times a week. These activities provide additional benefits.
  • You can increase your moderate-intensity physical activity by more than 300 minutes, or you can do more than 150 hours of vigorous-intensity physical activity. Or you may combine moderate-intensity and vigorous-intensity activities throughout the week to gain additional health benefits.
  • Limit the time you spend sedentary. Health benefits can be gained by replacing sedentary time (even with light physical activity) with any type of physical activity.
  • To reduce the negative effects of sedentary behavior on health, adults and older adults alike should strive to exceed the recommended levels for moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity.

Adults 65 years of age and older

  • The same applies to adults.
  • As part of their weekly exercise, older adults are encouraged to do a variety of multi-component activities that focus on functional balance and strength at a moderate to high intensity. This will enhance their functional capacity and prevent them from falling.

Women who are pregnant or postpartum

All women who are pregnant or postpartum and do not have contraindications should:

  • Do at least 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity
  • Include a variety aerobic and muscle strengthening activities
  • Limit the time you spend sedentary. Health benefits can be gained by replacing sedentary time (even light intensity physical activity) with other forms of physical activity.

People with chronic illnesses (HIV, diabetes type 2, hypertension and cancer survivors).

  • Do 150-300 minutes moderate intensity aerobic physical activity.
  • Or at least 75-150 minute of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or a combination of moderate and vigorous-intensity activities throughout the week.
  • You should also perform muscle-strengthening exercises at a moderate to high intensity, involving all major muscle groups. Do this 2 or more times a week. These activities provide additional benefits.
  • As part of their weekly exercise, older adults are encouraged to do varied, multi-component physical activities that emphasize functional balance and strength at a moderate to high intensity on three or more days per week. This will enhance functional capability and prevent falls.
  • You can increase your moderate-intensity physical activity by more than 300 minutes, or you can do more than 150 hours of vigorous-intensity physical activity. Or you may combine moderate- and intense-intensity physical activity during the week to gain additional health benefits.
  • Limit the time you spend sedentary. Health benefits can be gained by replacing sedentary time (even with light physical activity) with any type of physical activity.
  • To reduce the negative effects of high levels sedentary behavior on health, adults and older adults alike should strive to exceed the recommended levels for moderate-to-vigorous-intensity exercise.

Children and adolescents with disabilities:

  • Every week, you should aim to do 60 minutes of moderate-to vigorous intensity physical activity.
  • At least three days per week, you should include vigorous-intensity exercises, along with those that build muscle and strengthen bones.
  • Limit the time you spend sitting, especially when it comes to screen time.

Adults with disabilities:

  • Do 150-300 minutes moderate intensity aerobic physical activity.
  • Or at least 75-150 minute of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or a combination of moderate and vigorous-intensity activities throughout the week.
  • You should also perform muscle-strengthening exercises at a moderate to high intensity, involving all major muscle groups. Do this 2 or more times a week. These activities provide additional benefits.
  • To improve their functional capacity and prevent falls, older adults need to include varied, multi-component physical activities that focus on functional balance and strength at moderate to high intensity.
  • You can increase your moderate-intensity physical activity by more than 300 minutes, or you can do more than 150 hours of vigorous-intensity physical activity. Or you may combine moderate-intensity and vigorous-intensity activities throughout the week to gain additional health benefits.
  • Limit the time you spend sedentary. Health benefits can be gained by replacing sedentary time (even with light physical activity) with any type of physical activity.
  • To reduce the negative effects of high levels sedentary behavior on health, adults and older adults alike should strive to exceed the recommended levels for moderate-to-vigorous-intensity exercise.
  • You can be active and avoid sedentary behavior even when you are lying or sitting. E.g. Included and/or wheelchair specific sport and activities that are upper body-led.

Physical activity and its risks: Benefits and dangers

Regular physical activity such as walking, cycling or wheeling, playing sports or active recreation has significant health benefits. It is better to do some physical activity than none. Simple ways to increase activity can help people reach the recommended levels of physical activity.

Inactivity is a major risk factor for the mortality of noncommunicable disease. Insufficiently active people have a 20-30% higher risk of dying than those who are adequately active.

Regular physical activity:

  • Improve muscular and cardiorespiratory health;
  • Improve bone and functional health
  • Reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and cancers (including breast and colon cancer).
  • Reduce the risk of hip fractures or vertebral breaks;
  • Maintaining a healthy weight is important.

Physical activity in children and adolescents improves:

  • Physical fitness (cardiorespiratory fitness and muscular fitness).
  • Cardiometabolic health (blood glucose, insulin resistance, insulin dyslipidaemia and blood pressure)
  • Bone health
  • Cognitive outcomes (academic achievement, executive function).
  • Mental health (reduced symptoms)
  • Reduced adiposity

Higher levels of physical activity in adults and older adults improves:

  • Risk of mortality from all causes
  • Risk of cardiovascular disease mortality
  • Hypertension – incident
  • Cancers that occur at a specific site (bladder cancer, breast cancer, endometrial cancer, gastric cancer, renal cancer, and oesophageal cancer)
  • incident type-2 diabetes
  • Prevents falls
  • Mental health (reduced symptoms anxiety and depression).
  • Cognitive health
  • Sleeping
  • Adiposity can be improved by reducing adiposity.

Pregnant and postpartum women

The following benefits are conferred by physical activity on maternal and fetal wellbeing:

  • pre-eclampsia,
  • Gestational hypertension
  • Reduced risk of gestational diabetes by 30%
  • excessive gestational weight gain,
  • Delivery complications
  • postpartum depression
  • Newborn complications
  • Physical activity does not increase the risk of stillbirth or birth weight.

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Sedentary behaviour is associated with health risks

Through the use of motorized transportation and screens for work and education, our lives are becoming more sedentary. Sedentary behaviour is associated with poorer health outcomes.

Children and adolescents:

  • Increased adiposity is a weight gain.
  • Poor cardiometabolic fitness, poor behavioural conduct/prosocial behaviour
  • Reduced sleep duration

Adults:

  • All-cause mortality is the sum of mortality due to cardiovascular disease, cancer and other causes.
  • Incidence of cancer, cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes.

Global levels of physical activity

  • Over a quarter (1.4 billion) of the adult population in the world is not sufficiently active
  • Around 1 in 3 men and 1 in 4 women do not get enough physical activity in order to remain healthy.
  • In high-income countries the levels of inactivity is twice as high compared to countries with low income.
  • Since 2001, there has not been any improvement in the global level of physical activity
  • Between 2001 and 2016, the percentage of people who are not doing enough in high-income countries increased by 5%.

Physical inactivity has negative effects on the health system, the economy, community wellbeing, and quality of living.

In 2016, 28% of all adults over 18 years old were not sufficiently active (women 32% and men 23%). They do not meet global recommendations for at least 75 minutes of vigorous intensity or 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity each week.

In countries with high incomes, 26% men and 35% women are insufficiently active. This compares to 12% men and 24% women in countries with low incomes. Low or declining physical activity levels are often correlated with high or increasing gross national products.

Inactivity during leisure time, and sedentary behavior at work and home are some of the reasons for the decline in physical activity. Insufficient physical activity is also caused by an increase in “passive” transportation modes.

In 2016, 81% of adolescents aged between 11 and 17 years in the world were not sufficiently physically active. In 2016, 85% of adolescent girls and 78% of adolescent boy were not physically active enough to meet WHO guidelines of 60 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous intensity.

How can you increase your physical activity?

To increase physical activity, countries and communities need to take action. They must provide more opportunities for everyone to be active. It requires a collaborative effort at the national and local levels, involving different sectors and disciplines, to develop and implement solutions and policies that are appropriate for a particular country’s social and cultural environment.

The goal of policies to increase physical activity is to:

  • Walking, cycling and active forms of non-motorized transport are accessible to all and safe;
  • Labour and workplace policies encourage active commuters and physical activity during the working day.
  • The childcare sector, schools and universities provide safe and supportive spaces for students to engage in their leisure time.
  • Primary and secondary schools offer quality physical education to support children in developing behaviour patterns that keep them physically active for the rest of their lives.
  • All ages and abilities can benefit from community-based sports and school-sports programmes;
  • Sports and recreation facilities offer everyone the opportunity to participate in different sports, dances, exercises and active recreation.
  • Health care providers encourage and support their patients to maintain a regular level of physical activity.

WHO responds?

WHO launched its new Global Action Plan on Physical Activity for 2018-2030 in 2018. The plan outlines 20 specific recommendations and actions that Member States, partners internationally and WHO can take to increase physical activity around the world. The global action plan encourages countries, cities, and communities to take a “whole-of system” approach, involving all stakeholders and sectors, to increase physical activity.

In 2018, the World Health Assembly adopted a global goal to reduce inactivity by 15 percent by 2030, aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals. World leaders’ commitments to create ambitious national SDG responses provide an opportunity to refocus efforts on promoting physical exercise.

The WHO toolkit ACTIVE, launched in 2019, provides more detailed technical guidance about how to implement the 20 recommendations outlined in global action plan.

The global action plan (GAP) and ACTIVE offer policy options which can be adapted to local cultures and contexts in order to increase physical activity levels globally. These include:

  • The development and implementation national guidelines on physical activity for all age categories;
  • Establishing national coordination mechanisms that include all relevant government departments as well as key non-government actors to develop and implement coherent, sustainable policies and action plans;
  • Implementing community-wide communication campaigns that raise awareness of the many health, economic and sociological benefits of physical activity;
  • Invest in research, technology, and innovation to find cost-effective ways to increase physical activity in contexts with limited resources.
  • Ensure regular monitoring and surveillance of physical activity, policy implementation and other aspects.

WHO developed the Global Physical Activity Questionnaire

Help countries and communities measure adult physical activity. This questionnaire is designed to help countries monitor the risk of NCDs associated with insufficient physical activity. The GPAQ is integrated into the WHO STEPwise Approach, which is a system of surveillance for the main NCD risks.

In order to assess physical activity in schoolchildren, WHO collaborated with the Global School-Based Student Health Survey (GSHS) on a questionnaire. The GSHS, a WHO/US CDC project for surveillance, is designed to assist countries in measuring and assessing behavioural risk factors and protective factor in 10 key areas of young people aged between 13 and 17 years.

WHO also works with international experts to develop methods and instruments for assessing physical activity among children aged under five and under ten years. WHO is also testing digital and wearable technology, such as accelerometers and pedometers, for national population surveillance on physical activity among adults. The work will also be extended to children, and it will help inform the creation of updated global guidelines on monitoring physical activity and sedentary behaviors.

WHO collaborates across sectors to support a “whole-of-system” response. This includes strengthening coordination, advocacy, and alignment of policies and actions. WHO has formed partnerships with UNESCO to support Member States’ efforts to promote physical activities. These include working together to align and advance the implementation of the Kazan Action Plan and GAPPA on physical education, sport and physical activity. WHO also works with other UN agencies to promote Sport for Development and Peace. In the sports system, WHO collaborates with the International Olympic Committee, International Sports Federations and FIFA to promote health through sport and the sports agenda.

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