Department of Health and Human Services revs up physical activity guidelines for Americans

The new guidelines were announced at the American Heart Association's 2018 Scientific Sessions. (Colleen Zewe/MEDILL)

By Colleen Zewe
Medill Reports

Get your toddlers moving with active play. That’s the key change of new physical activity guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

HHS released the second edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions meeting in Chicago on Monday.

The recommendations include significant changes for children, and updates on the benefits of physical activity for adults and risks of sedentary behavior. This is the first update HHS has made to the guidelines since 2008.

The biggest change includes guidelines for toddlers ages 3 to 5, who were not included in the first edition. These children “should be physically active throughout the day to enhance growth and development,” according to the report. This is consistent with recommendations set by Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom,, according to Admiral Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the HHS.

According to the HHS, only 26 percent of men, 19 percent of women and 20 percent of adolescents currently meet the physical activity recommendations, and inactivity causes 10 percent of premature deaths in the U.S. due to conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

Their hope is that the update will help more people get moving.

“Meeting physical activity guidelines gives everyone a fighting chance against heart disease, the leading cause of death,” said Ivor Benjamin, AHA president.

The AHA agrees with HHS’s recommendations:


  • 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic activity a week
  • Muscle strengthening activities two days a week or more

Youth ages 6 through 17:

  • 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity a day
  • Muscle strengthening activities three days a week or more
  • Bone strengthening activities three days a week or more

Children ages 3 through 5:

  • Physical activity throughout the day to enhance growth and development as part of play activities.

The guidelines also include specifications for adults with chronic health conditions or disabilities, older adults and pregnant or post-partum women.

The report also removes the previous requirement that physical activity must be in bouts of at least 10-minutes. Instead, the bouts can be shorter.

“We felt that was a barrier to people achieving physical activity. If I can’t do 10 minutes, it won’t count, so why should I do it?” said William Kraus, professor at the Duke University School of Medicine. “There was also a dissonance between that requirement and the recommendations we had about parking further from work and taking the stairs. Those activities don’t take 10 minutes. After careful review of the existing literature, we found that in fact, one does not require 10-minute bouts to exert the amount of activity to count for achieving the guidelines. In that way, it is easier and will promote people to have more incentive to do the types of things we want them to do.”

Giroir said he hopes more people will implement the guidelines because improved physical health means improvement for the economy, national security and mortality.

“[Not adhering to guidelines] has health and economic consequences for the nation,” he said. “Nearly $117 billion in healthcare costs are attributed to inability to meet guidelines.”

The costs are related to diseases such as heart disease and to preventable illnesses.

Giroir said that physical activity can reduce anxiety, depression and blood pressure, and improve sleep, bone health and cognition, and reduce risk of Alzheimer’s and eight types of cancer.

“For the first edition, we only had strong evidence for breast and colon cancer,” he said. “Now we have added reduced risks for bladder, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, stomach and lung cancer.”

Giroir also said the one-third of young adults are not eligible for the military due to obesity.

Russell Pate, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Public Health, said he believes schools do not help children reach adequate levels of physical fitness, and schools should adopt the Comprehensive Physical Activity Model so that they can do better.

“Part of the answer is to provide kids with high quality physical education, but I think we recognize that that alone will not be enough,” he said at the event. “The Comprehensive School Physical Activity Model calls for not only enriching school pe programs, but to incorporate active transport to school, classroom activity, active learning after school programs and activity during the school day.”

Giroir said the HHS wants to transform U.S. healthcare from a sick-care system to a health-promotion system. He believes healthcare providers can help their patients add physical activity to their daily lives, and workplaces and community leaders can ensure access to safe places indoors and outdoors to be physically active.

The HHS also plans to change environment so that all people feel safe walking outside by adding things like safe sidewalks and bike trails.

“Physical activity is one of the most effective preventive health interventions available, and we need more emphasis on prevention,” he said. “The guidelines serve as a roadmap that be used by all sectors of society to improve physical activity for Americans.”

Photo at top: The HHS released their guidelines at the American Heart Association’s 2018 Scientific Sessions. (Colleen Zewe/MEDILL)