7 Tips From Uncle Sam's New Fitness Guidelines

You've heard most of the recommendations before, but there are some buried gems.

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The U.S. government's overall recommendations for physical activity announced earlier this week aren't terribly earth-shattering: Exercise moderately for 150 minutes a week and strength-train twice a week, and you'll reap substantial health benefits. (I wrote several years ago that the surgeon general and other groups such as the American College of Sports Medicine were already offering that same basic prescription.) But the new report is comprehensive, and in the details there are some tidbits that you might have missed.

1. The government endorses tree-climbing for kids. Kids and teens are encouraged to get an hour of physical activity every day, including bone- and muscle-building exercise at least three times a week. What does that mean? Muscle-building exercises force the muscles to work harder than simply tossing a ball back and forth with a friend. That doesn't mean kids necessarily have to hit the gym (though that's an option); the government says that tug of war, tree-climbing, and the monkey bars all count. Exercises that build bones require impact with the ground; anything involving jumping around should be fine.

2. If you don't have a lot of time, you can work harder for shorter periods. Moderate exercise includes things like brisk walking, doubles tennis, and biking slower than 10 mph. But the government says that you can cut that 150 minutes per week in half if you amp it up with more vigorous exercise: running, singles tennis, an aerobics class, or hiking uphill, to name a few examples. Just be sure to keep every session at least 10 minutes long, and you're set with 75 minutes a week. (I wrote earlier this year about other ways to cut your workout time.)

3. If you're older, watch your balance. Older adults are advised to get the same 150 minutes plus strength training as everyone else, health and chronic conditions permitting. But they should also do exercises specifically to guard against falls, which can lead to broken hips and other bones. Here are some ways to guard against falling, including a few sample exercises.

4. Pregnant women can follow Paula Radcliffe's example. The 2007 women's New York City Marathon champ (and world-record holder) trained until the day before she went into labor with her daughter and started up again two weeks after the birth. As many have already advised, the government says that highly active women can keep working out during pregnancy, as long as they stay healthy and talk over their routine with their healthcare provider.

5. Some people may benefit from even more exercise. Type 2 diabetics reap a lot of heart benefits from that 150-minute prescription, but they get even more if they move closer to 300 minutes a week. That's still fewer than 45 minutes a day. Getting more exercise brings more benefits for everyone else, too, especially if you're trying to keep your weight under control.

6. If you have special concerns, talk to your doc, but don't expect a free pass. Very few people have a valid excuse for not exercising. Indeed, the government says cancer survivors, people with arthritis, stroke victims, those with Parkinson's disease, and the mentally ill, among others, all benefit from exercise. Physical disabilities and chronic diseases and conditions may alter how you work out, but it's almost always still a good idea. Talk to your doctor about how to exercise safely.

7. It's good for your brain, too. The government says there's strong evidence that in addition to the laundry list of other health benefits exercise provides (including a lower risk of cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and breast and colon cancers), it's helpful in ameliorating depression and cognitive function.


Corrected on 10/10/08: An earlier version of this blog incorrectly reported the year in which Paula Radcliffe won the New York City Marathon after giving birth months before. It was 2007.