WHO guidelines reveal exactly how much exercise older adults need

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COVID-19 made everyone change their exercise habits for at least some period of time during this year, but how many have maintained those bad habits?

The importance of maintaining a physically active lifestyle has perhaps never been more important, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has made this clear in its latest guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour.

According to WHO statistics, one in four adults do not get enough exercise, which is leading to a host of health problems that could be easily avoided.

WHO explains that regular physical activity is the key to preventing and helping to manage heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer, as well as reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, reducing cognitive decline, improving memory and boosting brain health.

Older adults (aged 65 years or older) are advised to add activities that emphasise balance and coordination, as well as muscle strengthening, to help prevent falls and improve health.

“Being physically active is critical for health and wellbeing – it can help to add years to life and life to years,” said WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“Every move counts, especially now as we manage the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic. We must all move every day – safely and creatively.” 

According to the guidelines, older adults should do at least 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week or at least 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week.

It is also possible to do an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous activity throughout the week to reap the substantial health benefits.

The guidelines also recommend that older adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities at moderate of greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups on two or more days a week, as these provide additional health benefits.

As part of their weekly exercise routine, older adults should do varied activities that emphasise functional balance and strength training on three or more days per week to prevent falls.

“Declining physical capacity in older people often manifests in falls and fall-related injuries that can have serious consequences,” the guidelines explain.

“Recent evidence demonstrates that exercise may reduce the rate of falls by as much as 23 per cent in older adults, which can significantly reduce the risk of injury from falls, including severe falls that result in bone fracture, head trauma, open wound, soft tissue injury, or any other injury requiring medical care or admission to hospital.”

If you are not meeting the current exercise recommendations, WHO suggests that you should start by doing small amounts of exercise and gradually increase the frequency and intensity over time.

And even if you find meeting the minimum requirements too difficult, WHO also explains that doing some physical activity is better than doing none.

“Physical activity of any type, and any duration can improve health and wellbeing, but more is always better,” said Dr Ruediger Krech, WHO director of health promotion.

The WHO guidelines also reflected the poor health outcomes associated with older adults spending too much time being sedentary.

Sedentary behaviour was defined as time spent sitting or lying with low energy expenditure, while awake.

It is recommended that older adults should limit the amount of time being sedentary, replacing it with physical activity of any intensity.

How much exercise do you do per week? Are you meeting the WHO guidelines? Have you slipped into unhealthy habits this year that you need to change?

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