Americans Urged to Move More, Sit Less

Why striving to meet federal fitness recommendations could improve your overall health and quality of life.

Two women walking outdoors

Medically reviewed in July 2022

Americans need to move more and sit less. That’s been the clear-cut message from government health officials since they issued physical activity guidelines in 2008 and updated these recommendations in November 2018.

But research published in July 2019 in JAMA Network Open shows that many people still haven’t gotten the message. The proportion of adults meeting physical activity recommendations from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) didn’t improve dramatically between 2007 and 2016. On top of that, Americans are sitting even more than they were before.

After examining survey data collected from more than 27,000 American adults, researchers found that from 2015 to 2016 about 65 percent reported meeting government guidelines for aerobic activity—up from about 63 percent eight years earlier. Meanwhile, the time these adults spent sitting jumped from 5.7 hours to 6.4 hours per day over the same period. The researchers noted that the proportion of people not only falling short of recommendations for aerobic activity but also sitting more than six hours a day increased from about 16 percent to nearly 19 percent between 2008 and 2016.

As of 2016, young people weren’t faring much better, the DHHS reports. The latest data available suggests that only 20 percent of adolescents are sufficiently active.

“This suggests that as a nation, we are putting ourselves at higher risk for having worse physical, mental and cognitive health as a direct result of our sedentary lifestyles,” says Lindsay Peral, MD, medical director for Executive Health at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

How active should you be?
Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity. Keep in mind, if you can get closer to 300 minutes of moderate exercise or 150 minutes of more strenuous activity on a weekly basis, it’s even better. In fact, the more exercise you get, the greater the health benefits, experts advise.

But this activity doesn’t have to be done in bouts lasting at least 10 minutes, as previously specified. Health officials say that every bit of exercise counts toward your weekly goal—even just a two-minute walk.

“These updated recommendations reflect how important physical activity is to our physical, mental and cognitive health and well-being across the entire lifespan,” says Dr. Peral.

Any amount of exercise counts
The exercise guidelines updated in 2018 are based on scientific evidence that’s been compiled since the DHHS first issued formal guidelines in 2008. The key takeaway: Any amount of physical activity is better than none.

“As a medical provider who focuses on wellness and disease prevention, I appreciate the common-sense approach,” Peral says. “I also believe that small but intentional positive lifestyle changes will gradually lead to meaningful changes in health habits and behaviors, which will further enhance our overall health and wellness.”

Moderate-intensity activity includes things like doubles tennis, recreational swimming, bicycling slower than 10 miles per hour on level ground, ballroom or line dancing, general yard work and brisk walking. Running, swimming laps or taking a challenging fitness class are considered vigorous physical activity, according to the DHHS.

But even a short walk, for example, could provide some immediate health benefits, including a reduction in stress and blood pressure as well as increased alertness, Peral notes.

Bottom line: It’s great if you’re able to run a marathon or spend two hours at the gym, but even climbing a flight of stairs has health benefits. Shoveling, gardening, taking your dog for a walk and low-impact activities all count as exercise that will work toward reducing your risk for a slew of chronic health issues, like heart disease and diabetes.

The health benefits are substantial
“Recent data has revealed much broader benefits of exercise in terms of improving our brain health, reducing our risk for certain types of cancers, improving our sleep and our mood and overall improving the quality of our lives,” Peral notes.

Research conducted over the past 10 years suggests that in addition to reducing the risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, regular physical activity is also linked to a lower risk for eight different forms of cancer, including cancers of the bladder, breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, lung and stomach.

There is also more evidence of the brain-boosting benefits of exercise, the DHHS points out. Physical activity could help you sleep and think better and reduce your risk for dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. More recent studies have also established a link between exercise and mental health, suggesting that being active can ease anxiety and reduce the risk for depression.

Recommendations apply to all ages
The revised physical activity guidelines continue to advise adults to do muscle-strengthening activities at least two days per week. Older people should also add balance training to their weekly aerobic and muscle-strengthening routines to help reduce their risk for falls and fall-related injuries.

Kids and teenagers between 6 and 17 years old should engage in at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on a daily basis, while also fitting in muscle-building and bone-strengthening activities at least three days per week.

Health officials also encourage younger children to adopt an active lifestyle. The guidelines recommend that preschoolers between 3 and 5 years old be physically active throughout the day. 

Pregnant and postpartum women should also aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week.

Why exercise matters so much
About half of American adults have one or more preventable chronic diseases—but seven of the 10 most common chronic health conditions could be improved with physical activity, according to the DHHS.

Americans’ sedentary lifestyles and poor health are taking an economic toll as well. The DHHS calculates that Americans’ lack of physical activity, in particular, is linked to nearly $117 billion in yearly healthcare costs.

Physical activity can not only help people improve their health but can also lower healthcare costs associated with obesity and sedentary behavior.

How to get started safely
Health officials stress that safety should be a priority when participating in any type of activity. If you’re planning to engage in any fitness program, the DHHS recommends that you take the following precautions:

  • Choose activities that match your current fitness level and health goals.
  • If you’re going to increase the intensity or duration of your physical activities, do so gradually over time.
  • When participating in any activity, be sure to wear the appropriate gear and safety equipment.
  • Follow all the rules for your activity and make smart decisions about when, where and how to participate.
  • Pregnant women and those with chronic health issues or symptoms should talk to their healthcare providers before starting or changing an exercise regimen. They should ask about the types of activities that are appropriate for them and how much they can do safely.
Article sources open article sources

American Heart Association. "American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids." Published April 18, 2018. Accessed November 13, 2020.
Yang Du, MD, MS; Buyun Liu, MD, PhD; Yangbo Sun, MD, PhD; et al. "Trends in Adherence to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans for Aerobic Activity and Time Spent on Sedentary Behavior Among US Adults, 2007 to 2016." JAMA Open Network. 2019;2(7):e197597.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition.” Washington, DC. 2018.

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