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Uncle Sam wants you to sit less and move more. Here’s how you can meet the new exercise guidelines

Uncle Sam wants you to sit less and move more. Here’s how you can meet the new exercise guidelines
Taking the stairs instead of waiting for an elevator can help you meet the federal government's new targets for physical activity. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Listen up, Americans! The government has been recommending you get 150 minutes of exercise a week for a decade now. That’s just 20 minutes a day — and not even one in four of you can handle it.

But the Department of Health and Human Services, armed with some new research on the benefits of exercise — no, not even exercise, merely “physical activity” — is prepared to offer you losers and couch potatoes a few more inducements and a shot at redemption.

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On the inducement side, getting regular physical activity has now been linked to lower rates of eight different kinds of cancer, including those of the lung, kidneys and stomach. In 2008, when the first “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans” were released, government scientists could assert only that adequate levels of physical activity helped reduce the risk for breast and colon cancer.

And that’s on top of its ability to prevent heart attacks and strokes, decrease arthritis pain, improve brain health and academic performance, and generally lift your spirits.

The new guidelines were released Monday at the annual meeting of the American Heart Assn. They were also published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

All told, people who are physically active for approximately 150 minutes a week cut their risk of dying at any given age by one-third, compared with those who don’t exercise at all. In preventing disease and improving a person’s function across the lifespan, "only a few lifestyle choices have as large an effect on mortality as physical activity," the JAMA report says.

Still not convinced? The government scientists warn that being a couch potato is downright dangerous, accounting for 10% of all premature deaths among Americans. It’s expensive too: About $117 billion in annual healthcare costs are incurred because of Americans’ sedentary habits.

As powerful medicine goes, ”this is cheap,” said Adm. Brett P. Giroir, the assistant secretary of health who unveiled the new guidelines on Monday. After all, “the best way to reduce the cost of drugs is not to need drugs.”

But wait, there’s more! The federal government’s exercise gurus are now making it easier for couch potatoes to satisfy the recommendations for minimal levels of physical activity, which remain unchanged at 150 minutes per week of “moderate-to-vigorous aerobic activity” each week, with muscle strengthening activities on two days during the week.

It used to be that you had to get up and move around vigorously for at least 10 minutes at a time for it to count as exercise. In many minds, that’s a requirement that conjures up images of sneakers, spandex and sweat.

No worries. “All activities count,” the new federal guidelines say. “Bouts of any length contribute to the health benefits associated with the accumulated volume of physical activity.”

That means that if, during a two-hour stretch in front of the television, you were to get up from your couch during every commercial break and march up and down the stairs until your show returned … well, on average, you would have racked up an impressive 22 minutes of, let’s say, moderate physical activity per day.

In a week, that adds up to 154 minutes. Take a victory lap!

Dancing, gardening, walking the dog, marching briskly across a sprawling parking lot — all these count toward the weekly total. The new guidelines enshrine this idea in a soon-to-be-launched campaign called “Move Your Way.”

Just remember that, at its minimum, moderate-intensity activity is defined as reaching a rate of oxygen consumption (a rough surrogate for calories expended called METs, short for metabolic equivalents) that might be achieved by walking at a pace at which it would take you 20 minutes to cover a mile.

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Ideally, the writers of the guidelines would like you to get in — or try to work up to — some “vigorous-intensity” activity, for which the intensity of your exercise would have to reach 6 METS or more. That includes running a mile in 10 minutes, which is a 10-MET activity and therefore easily qualifies as a vigorous-intensity activity. Stair-climbing – assuming you’re doing it at a pretty rapid clip – is generally considered an activity at which you could reach 9 METs.

But you could just start by picking up the pace of your walking, jogging, swimming or stair-climbing.

And here’s an added bonus for the reluctant exerciser: If all the physical activity you engage in were vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, you could meet the guidelines’ minimum goals in just 75 minutes a week.

Now, you’d still need to do some “muscle strengthening activities” twice a week. That’s easier than you think. You can go to a strength-training class at your local community center or gym, where they might use stretchy resistance bands, squishy balls or light free weights to build strength in your legs, arms and midsection.

But if you were to stand in front of your easy chair and lift some small weights during a half-hour show — and to practice getting up from and down to your chair without touching the armrest (these are called “squats” for you exercise newbies, and, no, you can’t sit after each one), you could easily satisfy that requirement. Throw in a few push-ups to strengthen the muscles of the chest, shoulders and upper arms and you’re really ticking off the boxes.

The new guideline state that, to stay their healthiest, older adults should also aim to meet the 150-minutes per week targets if chronic conditions like arthritis, diabetes or heart disease don’t make that impossible. They “should be as physically active as their abilities and conditions allow,” the guidelines say. And their exercise should include balance training as well as aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities.

Did the Department of Health and Human Services tailor the new guidelines for a chief executive who seems to prefer driving a golf cart to walking? No, they got it from science.

And from science also comes some pretty encouraging news for those who haven’t been exercising but are keen to start: The benefits of boosting physical activity are greatest for those who currently aren’t getting any at all.

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Sure, a dedicated exerciser can increase the health benefits he gets by putting more minutes, or greater vigor, into his exercise regimen. But the person who gets the biggest bang for her buck is the person who’s starting from a habit of little-to-no exercise, Giroir said.

“Humans were evolved to move, and when you move, all your physiology works better,” he said.

To reduce the risk of injury to muscles and bone, the new guidelines stress that levels of physical activity should be increased gradually over time, even for those who are already exercising some.

For children and adolescents ages 6 through 17, the new guidelines recommend a minimum of 60 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, including muscle-strengthening and bone-strengthening exercise at least three times a week.

They also offer, for the first time, some recommendations for children ages 3 to 5.

Preschool-aged children “should be encouraged to move and engage in active play as well as in structured activities, such as throwing games and bicycle or tricycle riding,” the new guidelines say. To strengthen bones, “young children should do activities that involve hopping, skipping, jumping, and tumbling.” And although research hasn’t pinpointed the amount of activity needed to avoid too much weight gain or improve bone health in young children, “a reasonable target may be 3 hours per day.”

That, the drafters of the new recommendations say, is roughly in line with the average amount of activity observed among children of this age. But as screen time, preschool academics and the work demands on parents increase, young children’s playtime is widely believed to be on the decline.

Finally, the drafters of the new guidelines address a couple of issues of growing interest to scientists and Americans who are already pretty health-conscious.

One is the dangers of sitting. “People who sit a lot have an increased risk of all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality, as well as an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and colon, endometrial, and lung cancers,” the guidelines say. “The mortality risk related to sitting is not observed among people who do 60 to 75 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a day, but this amount of activity is far more than most people obtain. Therefore, both reducing sitting time and increasing physical activity will provide benefits.”

The guidelines also extol the benefits of high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, defined as “alternating short periods of maximal-effort exercise with less intense recovery periods.” HIIT ”can improve insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, and body composition in adults. Interestingly, adults with overweight or obesity and those at higher risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes tend to have greater cardiovascular benefits when doing HIIT compared to normal-weight or healthy adults.”

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