The New Exercise Guidelines Are Not Bad News, Even If You Hate Working Out

Even if you're not into fitness — like 80% of people in the US — there's some good news in the new exercise guidelines.

For the first time in 10 years, there are new exercise guidelines.

That’s super exciting, right? Unless you're thinking, damn, I wasn't even meeting the old ones. In case you've forgotten what those are, adults are supposed to get at least 2.5–5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise each week, plus two or more days of something that builds strength, like lifting weights.

Now there's an update, and it's not all bad news. The new exercise guidelines aren't increasing the recommended amount of exercise for teens and adults. (Sorry, they aren't decreasing them either.) But they do change the definition of exercise a bit, so that it's easier to hit, and offer guidelines about how much exercise young kids should get, as well as including more advice for exercise during pregnancy.

The guidelines, published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, were developed by the Department of Health and Human Services. They were last updated in 2008.

BTW, if you aren’t meeting those guidelines, don’t feel so bad. About 8 in 10 people in the US don't hit them either, according to the report. But that doesn't mean that health experts aren't trying really, really hard to get people moving.

A subtle but important change is that the guidelines no longer define exercise only as an activity that lasts at least 10 minutes. Why? An analysis of research conducted in the past decade showed that pretty much any darn thing you do for any length of time can count as exercise.

"l think that’s very exciting because it really means that if you park a little further in the parking lot and walk a little bit extra, that counts," Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, told BuzzFeed News. "You don’t have to go to the gym for 10, 15, or 30 minutes." Giroir is the lead author of a commentary published with the guidelines.

Katrina L. Piercy and colleagues at the HHS and the CDC published the guidelines, which were developed by the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee.

Here's a picture of noted thirst trap and probable future president of the United States, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, for inspiration.

So exactly how much exercise should you be doing?

For adults, it's still 2.5–5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise, or 1.25 to 2.5 hours of vigorous-intensity exercise per week, or some combination thereof. Moderate intensity would be brisk walking or yard work, whereas vigorous activity would be running or walking up stairs while carrying something heavy, like groceries. Adults should also aim to do muscle-strengthening exercises, like pushups or weightlifting, at least two days a week. The same recommendations apply to people with chronic conditions or disabilities, if they are able to do them.

The message seems to be that something, anything, is better than nothing. "Recommendations emphasize that moving more and sitting less will benefit nearly everyone," according to the report.

"Your biggest net benefit occurs when you transition from being a total couch potato to even being insufficiently active," said Giroir. "So even if you don’t meet the 150 [minutes], if you are a completely sedentary person, and you start being active even a few minutes a day, you get a very big bang for your buck."

For the first time, the new guidelines recommend a specific amount of activity for 3- to 5-year-olds. They should be active most of the day, playing for three hours, if possible, whether that's light, moderate, or vigorous intensity.

Kids aged 6 to 17 should be getting an hour a day of moderate-to-vigorous activity, like walking, playing at a playground, running, jumping rope, or playing basketball. There's some evidence that more adults are meeting the exercise guidelines than in the past, although that's not true for teens, said Giroir.

And for people who are pregnant or in the postpartum period, they should try to get 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise per week, just like everyone else, according to the report. That's with your doctor's permission, of course.

Giroir, who is also a physician, said these new exercise recommendations for pregnancy are "a little bit stronger" compared to the last ones, and that only in relatively rare circumstances is exercise not recommended in pregnancy.

"So if you're the CrossFit kind of person, even though you are pregnant, you can still do that kind of activity and if you are not active, you could still become active at a lesser degree," he said.

Here's an inspiring person, Ebonny Fowler, working out during pregnancy.

We're learning more and more about the health benefits of exercise.

You probably already know exercise is good. But in the past 10 years, there's more information about just how good it really is, said Giroir.

"There are six additional cancers that it helps to prevent, so a total of eight cancers," he said. Exercise lowers the risk of cancers of the bladder, breast, colon and rectum, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, stomach, and lungs.

Exercise has also long been known to reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart attack, and stroke. And now there is more evidence it can reduce anxiety and depression, as well as postpartum depression.

Exercise also has a positive impact on brain health. "So if you are an adolescent your cognitive abilities go up, your achievement scores go up, and if you are elderly, or on the way, it actually helps prevent dementia, including Alzheimer’s," said Giroir.

In the short term, exercise can lower blood pressure, improve sleep, and increase the body's sensitivity to insulin, the blood sugar–regulating hormone.

Still not convinced? Ten percent of all premature deaths in the US are due to inactivity, according to Giroir. More exercise could save 75,000 lives per year, he said, and sedentary lifestyles are responsible for $117 billion in annual health care costs.

"If it were a drug, it would be a $100 billion blockbuster, but it’s yours for free," he said.

Here's Jessamyn Stanley, yoga teacher and body positivity advocate, if you need even more inspiration.


The Department of Health and Human Services recommends 2.5–5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise each week for most adults. An earlier version of this post misstated that number.

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