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ExerciseDec 3, 2020

WHO guidelines: 'every move counts' in bid to raise activity levels worldwide

There is an onus on physiotherapists and other healthcare practitioners to support national attempts to promote physical activity levels and cut sedentary behaviours.

That is the theme of guidelines issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) at the end of last month. These urge health workers – and also those working in fields such as sport, education, transport and planning – to integrate attempts to promote people's physical activity levels into their routine practice.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Fruits of their labour: growing tomatoes counts as a physical activity


Launched at a time when Covid-19 is making many people house-bound, the guidelines stress that everyone – whatever their age or ability – can be physically active, and that every type of movement counts. According to the WHO, up to 5 million deaths could be averted annually if people around the world were more active.

The guidelines say adults should take at least 150-300 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity a week, including those who have chronic conditions or disability. Children and adolescents should do so for 60 minutes a day.

Women should carry on being physically active during pregnancy 

While such levels might seem relatively modest to some, the WHO has found that one adult in four, and four adolescents in five, does not get enough physical activity at present. Globally, this adds more than £40 billion to direct health care costs while the bill in terms of lost productivity is more than £10 billion, the WHO states.

The guidelines encourage women to carry on being physically active on a regular basis during their pregnancies and after giving birth. They also highlight the health benefits of physical activity for people with disabilities.

Those aged 65 years or older are advised to take up activities that assist in areas such as balance, coordination and muscular strength to help prevent falls and improve health generally.

If you must spend a lot of time sitting still – whether at work or school – you should do more physical activity to counter the harmful effects of sedentary behaviour [Ruediger Krech, WHO director of health promotion]

Regular physical activity is key to preventing and helping to manage conditions including 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.

‘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 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.’ 

Cleaning and gardening are physical activities

All physical activity is beneficial and can be done as part of work, sport and leisure or transport, but also through dance, play and everyday household tasks, such as gardening and cleaning, the guidelines state.

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

‘If you must spend a lot of time sitting still – whether at work or school – you should do more physical activity to counter the harmful effects of sedentary behaviour.’

Reducing physical inactivity by 2030 

The WHO encourages countries to adopt global guidelines when developing national health policies in support of its global action plan on physical activity 2018-2030The plan was agreed by global health leaders at the World Health Assembly in 2018 in a bid to reduce physical inactivity by 15 per cent by 2030.

To download copies of the WHO guidelines, visit: www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240015111

The British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM) published an editorial by a team led by Riitta-Maija Hämäläinen, from the WHO’s regional office for the Western Pacific, in a series of articles to coincide with the release of the WHO guidelines.

The authors predict that the guidelines will lead to an ‘increase [in] political traction and mobilise action’ internationally, pointing that some countries have yet to produce their own guidelines on this topic.

They conclude: ‘Due to responses to Covid-19 pandemic with widespread quarantine, social-distancing measures, closure of recreational amenities and travel restrictions, there is even greater interest and need for countries to support active mobility and provide more opportunities for PA in open spaces and provide online services to increase PA.’

See: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2020-103531

Another BJSM article, whose lead author is Fiona Bull from the WHO’s physical activity unit at the department of health promotion, highlights a series of key points from the guidelines, some of which are summarised below:


  •        for all populations, the benefits of doing physical activity and limiting sedentary behaviour outweigh the potential harms
  •        risks can be managed by gradual increases in the amount and intensity of physical activity
  •        some physical activity is better than none for those not currently meeting the recommendations
  •        individuals should start with small amounts of physical activity and gradually increase the frequency, intensity and duration
  •        countries are encouraged to adopt and disseminate the new global guidelines to key audiences

See: https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/54/24/1451


Author: Ian A McMillan
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