People who sit for prolonged periods should exceed exercise recommendations, according to guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO).
Experts have long warned those who are sedentary for much of the day could face an early death, with some even claiming “sitting is the new smoking”.
The WHO has therefore recommended people take part in 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity exercise – like brisk walking, dancing or even raking leaves – a week.
Alternatively, those who are more time-pressed could do at least 75 to 100 minutes of vigorous exercise – such as jogging, cycling or carrying heavy objects – every seven days.
The guidelines coincide with a study of more than 44,000 people, which revealed those who sat for 10 or more hours a day – like office workers or lorry drivers – were at a greater risk of a premature death.
The scientists behind the research added, however, finding the time for 30 to 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a day “substantially weakens this risk”, bringing it in line with people who spend very little time sat down.
The WHO has stressed any activity is better than none, urging people to take the stairs over the lift, walk around the block and get stuck into household chores.
“These guidelines are very timely, given that we are in the middle of a global pandemic, which has confined people indoors for long periods and encouraged an increase in sedentary behaviour,” said Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis from the University of Sydney.
“People can still protect their health and offset the harmful effects of physical inactivity.
“As these guidelines emphasise, all physical activity counts and any amount of it is better than none.
“There are plenty of indoor options that don’t need a lot of space or equipment, such as climbing the stairs, active play with children or pets, dancing, or online yoga or Pilates classes.”
Exercise has numerous benefits for both physical and mental health, with research repeatedly linking high activity levels to lower rates of heart disease, cancer and depression, to name a few conditions.
Watch: Work out while sat down
Based on research by more than 40 scientists across six continents, the WHO has recommended all adults be moderately active for 150 to 300 minutes a week.
Alternatively, 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous exercise – or some combination of strenuous and moderate activity – every seven days is said to have the same benefits.
Among children and teenagers, the WHO recommends an hour of moderate-to-vigorous intensity exercise across the week.
The organisation also stressed people of all ages should minimise time spent sat down, but added “evidence was insufficient to quantify a sedentary behaviour threshold”.
“Although the new guidelines reflect the best available science, there are still some gaps in our knowledge,” said Professor Stamatakis.
“We are still not clear, for example, where exactly the bar for ‘too much sitting’ is, but this is a fast paced field of research and we will hopefully have answers in a few years’ time.”
People without the fitness to meet the WHO’s recommendations should start small and gradually build up the frequency, intensity and duration of their physical activity, it added.
As well as exercise that gets the heart rate up, the organisation also recommends people take part in muscle-strengthening activities – like weights – at a “moderate or greater intensity” on at least two days a week.
People aged 65 or over should particularly focus on strength training and activities that promote balance at a minimum moderate intensity on three or more days a week.
Writing in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the WHO lists examples of balance training as “walking backwards or sideways, or standing on one foot while doing an upper body muscle strengthening activity, such as bicep curls”.
It also stressed pregnant women and those who have recently given birth should continue to be active.
The WHO’s recommendations coincide with a study by scientists at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences in Oslo, who analysed the activity levels of more than 44,000 adults, before following them for four to 14 years.
The most sedentary participants were most likely to die over the study period, however, “about 30 to 40 minutes of MVPA [moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity] per day attenuates the association between sedentary time and risk of death”, according to the team.
A third study by the not-for-profit research organisation RAND Europe in Cambridge found that if everyone did at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week – the lower limit of the WHO’s recommendation – the global gross domestic product (GDP) would increase by 0.15% to 0.24% a year up to 2050.
This is the equivalent of up to $314bn (£235.1bn) to $446bn (£334bn) annually or U$6 trillion (£4.4 trillion) to $8.6 trillion (£6.4 trillion) over 30 years.
Exercise can ward off disease and extend a person’s life, helping them be more productive and spend fewer days working while ill, known as presenteeism.
Watch: Raking leaves is exercise