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New HHS Physical Activity Guidelines Include Americans as Young as Age 3

mother running with her young son in the backyard as other family members play in distance

For the first time, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is recommending that children as young as age 3 be physically active every day. The second edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans emphasizes the health benefits of physical activity for Americans of all ages. Also new in the second edition: any amount of activity for adults, even if it’s less than 10 minutes, counts toward the weekly goal of 150 to 300 minutes. The guidelines were published November 12, 2018 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Getting physical activity is one of the most effective things people can do to improve their health and reduce risk for many chronic diseases and conditions, including cancer. However, 80% of adults and adolescents in the US aren’t active enough, which can have negative effects on health. For the overall US population, an estimated $117 billion in annual health care costs and about 10% of premature deaths are associated with inadequate physical activity.

Benefits of physical activity

The HHS Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee reviewed the current science on physical activity and health. Evidence shows physical activity fosters normal growth and development including bone health, weight control, and heart, respiratory, and muscle fitness. Regular physical activity helps people sleep and think better. It also reduces the risk of anxiety and depression, high blood pressure, dementia, and several types of cancer.

Previously, HHS guidelines only counted periods of activity lasting 10 minutes or more as enough to meet daily or weekly goals. Based on current evidence, the new guidelines say that moderate-to-vigorous activity of any amount, even less than 10 minutes, is related to health benefits. (Moderate activity is equivalent in effort to brisk walking and vigorous activity is equivalent in effort to running or jogging.) This finding is consistent with tips for more routine daily physical activity, such as parking farther away from a destination and walking or taking the stairs rather than the elevator.

Recommendations by age:

The guidelines emphasize that moving more and sitting less will benefit nearly everyone. Some physical activity is better than none, and even small increases lead to additional health benefits. The HHS says doctors should help their patients develop a physical activity plan that works best.  For optimal health benefits, the guidelines recommend:

  • Children ages 3 to 5 should be physically active throughout every day for healthy growth and development.
  • Children and adolescents ages 6 to 17 should get at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity every day.
  • Adults of all ages should get at least 150 -300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity each week, or a combination, preferably spread throughout the week. Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities (such as resistance training or weight lifting) 2 or more days a week.
  • Older adults should do a variety of activities that include balance training (such as lunges or walking backward) along with the recommended adult aerobic exercise (such as brisk walking, running, or bicycling), and muscle-strengthening activities.
  • Pregnant women should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week.
  • Adults with chronic conditions or disabilities, who are able, should follow the key guidelines for adults and do both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities.

Physical Activity for Preschool-aged Children

For the first time, HHS guidelines address the physical activity needs of children younger than age 6. At ages 3 to 5, children are undergoing periods of rapid growth and need physical activity throughout the day to develop properly and learn important movement skills. Adult caregivers of preschool-aged children should encourage active play that includes a variety of activity types.

The guidelines do not specify how much physical activity is required for this age group, but the authors write that a reasonable target may be 3 hours per day of activity of all intensities: light, moderate, or vigorous. This is the average amount of activity observed among children of this age.

A coordinated effort

The authors conclude that an increase in physical activity among Americans will benefit the entire US population and will require the cooperation of many sectors of society including health care professionals, health care organizations, and the government.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Published November 12, 2018 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. First author Katrina L. Piercy, PhD, RD, US Department of Health and Human Services, Rockville, Md.