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Health & Wellness

What the New Exercise Guidelines Mean

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The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently issued new Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

This is the first update since the publication of the initial recommendations back in 2008.

Research over the last decade, the report says, has identified new benefits of exercise that go far beyond a trimmer waist or more toned biceps. These include improved cognitive function, reduced risk of anxiety and depression, and better sleep.

For older adults, regular exercise may offer protection against fall-related injuries. And for people with chronic health conditions, adhering to the physical fitness guidelines may improve quality of life while lowering the risk of mortality.

Some things haven’t changed: as they did in 2008, the new guidelines still recommend that, every week, adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise, or a combination of both. Adults of all ages should also do muscle-strengthening activities two or more days a week.

What’s new in the updated guidelines is the suggestion that you can reach these goals through a snack-like approach to fitness.

Can’t commit to an exercise class or an hour-long hike? Bite-sized bursts of physical activity can be just as beneficial. “Adults should move more and sit less throughout the day,” the report says. “Some physical activity is better than none. Adults who sit less and do any amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity gain some health benefits.”

Aubrey Reinmiller, a certified personal trainer who owns a fitness studio in Maryland, specializing in wellness for people over 50, says you can tally up your fitness minutes through short everyday activities. Working in the garden, raking leaves, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking around the mall at a good clip — all are ways to achieve your fitness goals.

Strength training can be added into daily activities, too. Try doing calf raises while you’re washing the dishes or folding laundry. Keep a resistance band near your TV, and you can complete a full-body strengthening workout in 10 to 20 minutes while you watch your favorite show. This 12-step regimen from the American Council on Exercise is just one of countless free guides you can find on the internet.

When older adults aren't able to do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week due to chronic health conditions or because they’ve long been sedentary, the report recommends they be as physically active as their abilities allow. With guidance from their physicians, they should “start low and go slow.” For example, they might start a program of walking five minutes several times a day. Then, over weeks or months, they might increase to three 10-minute walking sessions a day, while slowly increasing their walking speed.

The new guidelines also say that older adults should be sure to include multicomponent physical activities in their weekly exercise regimen. That means sessions that combine balance training, muscle-strengthening, and aerobic elements. Standing on one foot while you do a bicep curl combines strength and balance.

To hit all three components, Reinmiller suggests a two-minute at-home circuit of a dozen or so squats or lunges for strength training, a series of jumping jacks for aerobics and, for both strength and balance, push-ups where you extend an arm or a leg for one to three seconds after each move.

Want to add fun to the mix? The guidelines suggest ballroom dancing as an activity that combines aerobic and balance components. As an added bonus, dancing also gives a boost to brain health.

As for how hard you need to be working to meet the definition of intense exercise, the talk test is a good guide. “As a rule of thumb,” the report says, “a person doing moderate-intensity aerobic activity can talk, but not sing, during the activity. A person doing vigorous-intensity activity cannot say more than a few words without pausing for a breath.”

Or, assess your efforts by what Reinmiller calls the “modified exertion scale.” On a scale of zero to 10, sitting on the couch is zero while 10 is the absolute hardest you can push yourself. For a fitness regimen that’s sustainable, Reinmiller suggests aiming for an exertion level between five and six.

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