For many, the phrase physical activity conjures sweaty runs or powerlifting sessions at the gym. But the latest federal guidelines support a much broader definition of what it means to be active: one that includes less obvious pursuits like taking the stairs, raking leaves and even bird-watching. This subtle shift in messaging may even help Americans live longer, experts say.
The new federal physical-activity guidelines were updated in November for the first time since 2008, and they still urge adults to do 75 minutes of vigorous (or 150 minutes of moderate) aerobic activity each week, plus muscle-strengthening sessions like weight lifting or yoga twice a week. But only 23% of Americans do so, and a recent study found that a quarter of American adults sit for more than eight hours per day. The addition of a simpler imperative to the guidelines–“move more and sit less,” no matter what form that movement takes or how long it lasts–may make people more likely to meet them.
If more Americans follow that credo, they stand to gain significant health benefits, including longer lives. Recent research suggests that activities you’d never think of as exercise, like running errands and cleaning the bathroom, still have longevity perks. In a study of older women published last year in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, each 30-minute chunk of light activities like these was linked to a 12% lower risk of dying early compared with more sedentary peers. And a 2018 study found that among older men, each additional half hour of light physical activity, such as walking or gardening, slashed their risk of early death by 17%.
That every movement counts may be the message Americans need to hear to get more active, says Jack Raglin, a professor of kinesiology at the Indiana University Bloomington School of Public Health. “The fitness industry tends to keep people focused on the standard modes of activity, but it can be a big hurdle to go to a gym or to join a class, especially if you are older, not fit or overweight,” Raglin says. “You want something that’s convenient and not too hard for most people, and that you can do any time or place.”
Even things like standing on the subway or walking while you talk on the phone, rather than sitting down, can have an impact, says Jacque Crockford, a certified personal trainer with the American Council on Exercise. Studies show that these easy activities–known scientifically as non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT–are associated with lower body weight, better overall health and increased life span. “It’s important to recognize the difference between planned exercise and just being active,” Crockford says. “We put a lot of weight on the exercise part, rather than thinking of it as, ‘I’ll just move my body.'”
Of course, formal exercise will get you to the goalpost faster, and vigorous exercise often brings the biggest health benefits, at least for young, healthy people. But even if you don’t move enough to meet the federal recommendations, any progress toward them likely corresponds to better health, says Michael LaMonte, a research associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the University at Buffalo, and one of the authors of the recent study touting the benefits of cleaning and running errands. “Don’t put a time scale on it; don’t put an intensity on it,” LaMonte says. “We need to go back to the old days, when movement was a way of life.”