To combat a global health issue, WHO is changing its definition of exercise

Emma Betuel

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Sitting was already developing a bad reputation before it became defined by time spent in work-from-home office chairs. In recent years, studies have linked sitting for more than 10 hours a day to higher healthcare costs — and a higher risk of death.

In an effort to take down sitting, the World Health Organization (WHO) has changed the way it describes sitting’s nemesis: physical activity. And anyone wary of hours on a treadmill might be glad to see a few key changes to what WHO considers exercise.

Last week, WHO updated its guidelines for physical activity for the first time since 2010. The guidelines were published in a special edition of the British Medical Journal.

Adults are now advised to do between 150 and 300 minutes of moderate exercise per week — that’s 30 to 60 minutes per day, 5 days per week.

Moderate exercise feels like a five or six out of ten effort level. If time is a factor, the guidelines suggest upping the intensity. In that case, adults should aim for 75 to 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise — effort you might rate a five or higher out of ten.

Emmanuel Stamatakis is a co-author of the revised guidelines and a professor at the University of Sydney. He tells Inverse that sitting itself isn’t unhealthy — sedentary behavior, after all, is part of a normal life. However, low levels of exercise in addition to lots of sedentary time “seems to add insult to injury,” Stamatakis says.

“The true culprit is that our civilization has engineered an environment where it is hard to be physically active but offers ample opportunity to be sedentary,” he tells Inverse.

For adults, the guidelines contain three signs that WHO is updating the way it sees exercise and its ability to help offset the dangers of sedentary life:

  • These guidelines eliminate minimum durations for exercise, emphasizing that any amount of exercise is better than none.
  • They acknowledge a wider range of exercises, from muscle strengthening to balance workouts.
  • The guidelines suggest limiting time spent sedentary is in itself a tool that can combat sitting’s dangers, in addition to exercising.

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