WHO: health harms from prolonged sitting can be offset by exceeding weekly recommended physical activity levels

December 2, 2020

New research involving some 44,000 people across four countries highlights a grim reality: a high daily tally of sedentary time (10 or more hours) i.e. prolonged sitting is linked to a significantly heightened risk of premature death, particularly among people who are already unfit or physically inactive.

However, according to guidelines set out in the 2020 World Health Organization (WHO) Global Guidelines on Physical and Sedentary Behavior, any amount of physical activity, even 30 to 40 daily minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity substantially weakens the risk of early death, irrespective of the individual’s age or abilities.

Activities such as climbing the stairs instead of taking the lift, a walk around the block, a romp in the garden, or doing some household chores, to going for a run or bike ride, a high-intensity interval training workout, or team sport adds up to the weekly tally of 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity, or at least 75-100 minutes of vigorous intensity, physical activity.

Light intensity physical activity doesn’t cause a substantial increase in heart rate or breathing and includes activities such as strolling, said the WHO. Moderate intensity physical activity increases heart rate and induces a degree of breathlessness where it’s still possible to talk; examples include brisk walking, dancing, or raking up leaves. Vigorous intensity physical activity substantially increases heart rate and breathing rate through activities such as cycling, running/jogging, swimming, carrying heavy objects, walking up the stairs, digging the garden, or playing tennis.

The new WHO guidelines highlight the importance of regularly undertaking both aerobic and muscle strengthening activities, and for the first time, make specific recommendations for important, but often neglected groups, including those who live with long term conditions or disabilities, pregnant women and new mothers.

If the standard physical activity recommendations prove too much, adults including those living with long term conditions or disabilities at any age should – at least – aim to undertake muscle-strengthening activity such as weights or core conditioning at moderate or greater intensity on 2 or more days of the week.

Older adults (65+) should do physical activity that emphasises functional balance and strength training at moderate or greater intensity on 3 or more days of the week, to enhance functional capacity and prevent falls.

As for pregnant women and new mothers, they should aim for regular physical activity throughout pregnancy and after birth to include gentle stretching and various aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities.

The WHO emphasises any amount of physical activity is better for health than none, and so recommend those unable to meet these guidelines start small and gradually build up the frequency, intensity, and duration of their physical activity over time.

Moreover, boosting physical activity levels can also benefit the global economy, through higher productivity and lower rates of presenteeism and working age sickness and death. The researchers estimate that doing 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity every week – which is the lower end of the range recommended in the WHO guidelines – would increase global gross domestic product (GDP) by between 0.15%-0.24% a year between now and 2050; it translates to nearly US$314-446 billion a year and US$6.0-8.6 trillion cumulatively over the 30 years in 2019 prices.

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Category: Features, Health alert

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