Cedric X. Bryant by Cedric X. Bryant

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released their 2020 guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behavior. Globally, many adults and adolescents do not meet recommendations for physical activity and there is an urgent need for countries to prioritize and invest in services that get people moving. These updates were made as part of a WHO Global Action Plan on Physical Activity 2018–2030 initiative to reduce global levels of physical inactivity in adults and adolescents by 15% by 2030.

These guidelines should inform the efforts of health coaches and exercise professionals who work to empower populations to achieve healthy levels of physical activity, as they provide evidence-based support for the programming you provide to your clients.

These guidelines reaffirm and highlight the importance of regularly participating in cardiorespiratory and muscle-strengthening activities, while also offering key practical notes that make it is easier for health coaches and exercise professionals to share these recommendations with clients. These practical notes include simplified takeaway messages such as the following:

  • Some physical activity is better than none.
  • Start with small amounts of physical activity and gradually increase frequency, intensity, and duration over time.
  • Engage in physical activity according to your abilities.
  • Children and adolescents should engage in a variety of age-appropriate physical activities they enjoy.
  • If not currently active, doing some physical activity will benefit health.

Stated simply, the WHO states that “every move counts,” meaning that because physical activity protects and improves health—while sedentary behavior can increase the risk of heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes—every moment of physical activity is important. This message holds true for people of all ages, women during and after pregnancy, and those living with chronic conditions.

To review a summary of the WHO guidelines, see Table 4 at the first link provided above. This table provides guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behavior for children and adolescents, adults, older adults, and pregnant and postpartum women. One consistent recommendation that extends across the lifespan is to limit sedentary time and recreational screen time and increase physical-activity levels. Key takeaways for each demographic are as follows:

  • Children and adolescents (5–17 years old): Physical activity is associated with improved physical, mental and cognitive health outcomes, and many of these benefits are observed with an average of 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day. In addition, children and adolescents should perform vigorous-intensity aerobic activities, as well as activities that strengthen muscle and bone, at least three days each week.
  • Adults (18–64 years old): Adults should average 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of the two, each week. Benefits include a reduction in all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality, along with improved mental health and cognitive health and outcomes. Adults should also perform muscle-strengthening activities at a moderate or greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups at least two days each week.
  • Older adults (=65 years old): In addition to the benefits seen for adults, older adults will see improvements in terms of falls, fall-related injuries, physical function, frailty and osteoporosis. For this population, physical activity should emphasize functional balance and strength training, performed at a moderate or greater intensity three or more days per week.
  • Pregnant and postpartum women: Physical activity during pregnancy is associated with reduced gestational weight gain and reduced risk of gestational diabetes in pregnant women with overweight or obesity, as well as a reduction in delivery complications, postpartum depression and preeclampsia. Pregnant and postpartum women should perform at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week, as well as muscle-strengthening activities. These physical activities should be in line with what they were performing before becoming pregnant.

In addition to these populations, the WHO guidelines offer recommendations for people living with chronic conditions, including cancer, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and HIV. Physical activity is considered safe for individuals with these conditions who do not have contraindications, and the benefits generally outweigh the risks. If it is deemed safe to do so, these individuals should follow the guidelines for adults, as listed above.

For those living with disability as a result of multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, intellectual disability, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, major clinical depression, schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, physical activity is considered safe and beneficial if the individual has no contraindications and there are no major risks at play. If it is deemed safe to do so, individuals living with disability should follow the guidelines listed above for their age group.

Remember, “every move counts,” so encourage and empower all of your clients to get moving.