Many of us find it challenging to make time for weekly workouts even though we know they can be hugely beneficial to our health.

While there is no substitute for proper exercise, the World Health Organization has set a new minimum bar for physical activity that is necessary for maintaining good health and avoiding chronic conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes, among other health problems that can be triggered by or worsened with inactivity or insufficient activity.

In its new guidelines, “WHO guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour”, released on 25 November 2020, the WHO has recommended the following duration and level of activity based on life stage:

Life stage



Children and adolescents

60 minutes a day


Adults, including pregnant women and people with chronic conditions

150-300 minutes a week

Moderate to vigorous

All adults

75-150 minutes a week


  1. Physical activity versus exercise
  2. Benefits of physical activity
  3. What intensity is yoga, walking, aerobic exercise, running?
  4. Takeaways for the minimum activity for good health

Any body movement that burns calories and uses the skeletal muscles—the muscles we usually have voluntary control over—qualifies as physical activity.

By this definition, the things that count as physical activity are household chores, lifting heavier objects around the house or office, playing, dancing, cleaning, gardening where it requires some amount of digging and lifting objects, going and up and down the stair and travelling where there is an element of walking, cycling or standing, etc.

Exercise, by contrast, has a more limited definition. It comprises a set of usually repetitive or rhythmic movements designed to strengthen specific areas of the body. Of course, functional training exercises are modelled on everyday tasks, but even those have an element of planning and structure around them.

According to the WHO, exercise is a subcategory of physical activity.

Read more: Household chores as a means of exercise

WHO data show that one in four adults worldwide is not active enough. Insufficient physical activity has been linked to a higher risk of health problems like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and even cancer. According to the WHO, around 50 lakh deaths around the world may be prevented each year if we all become more active.

We are all aware that a sedentary life and prolonged hours of sitting are bad for health. Some of us struggle to make time for weekly exercise while also juggling office and home life and socialising.

These WHO guidelines on physical activity put a figure on how long you need to be active for, with options for activity levels. The guidelines also recommend that:

  • Women stay active throughout pregnancy and after delivery
  • People living with disabilities should also remain active in ways that are appropriate for them

In addition to staying active generally, people aged 65 and above should perform activities that improve balance, coordination and muscle strength. This would go a long way to help the elderly reduce their risk of falling and improve their overall health.

The WHO recommendation for adults is 150-300 minutes of moderate physical activity a week or 75-150 minutes of vigorous activity a week. Different activities can of course of different intensity.

Take the example of something as simple as walking. While a stroll is a leisurely, low-intensity activity, a powerwalk can increase the heart rate and go up to moderate intensity.

Similarly, with yoga, some asanas like Mayurasana (Peacock pose) require a lot of strength and stability in the body and can leave you breathless from the effort, there are many examples of less intense poses.

Even in terms of household chores, something like mopping the floors is likely to be more intense than watering the plants.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is a very simple test for the intensity of the activity you are engaged in:

  • Moderate intensity: If you can talk but not sing during the activity, it’s moderate intensity. Examples include brisk walking (5-6 km per hour), water aerobics and cycling at 16 km an hour or less.
  • Vigorous intensity: If you need to take a break to breathe after speaking a few words, the level of intensity is considered vigorous. Examples include jogging, running, aerobic dancing, skipping rope, etc.

So take a stock of your day. Figure out where you chalk up your weekly activity/exercise minutes and reap the benefits.

Dr Fiona Bull, head of the Physical Activity Unit which was involved in the development of the new WHO guidelines, said in a release: “These new guidelines highlight how important being active is for our hearts, bodies and minds, and how the favourable outcomes benefit everyone, of all ages and abilities.”

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There’s a lot of research on how you can achieve better fitness. For example, new research published in the journal Circulation in September 2020 shows that even short bursts of exercise can have long-lasting benefits for the metabolism. This is because exercise reduces the level of metabolites linked with insulin resistance and increases the metabolites linked with lipolysis (breaking down triglycerides), improving the bioavailability of nitric oxide, and adipose browning (turning white fat into brown fat or good fat which helps with weight loss too).

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We know that regular exercise helps to slow down ageing and prevent health conditions like obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The WHO guidelines offer a starting point to anyone who for any reason is unable to exercise routinely: regular physical activity, as per your age and life stage, to prevent or help manage heart disease, type-2 diabetes and cancer, reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety, slow down cognitive decline, improve memory and overall brain health.

“Being physically active is critical for health and well-being—it can help to add years to life and life to years,” WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a news release at the launch of the new physical activity guidelines. “Every move counts... We must all move every day—safely and creatively,” he added.

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  1. World Health Organization, Geneva [Internet]. WHO Guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour.
  2. World Health Organization, Geneva [Internet]. News release: Every move counts towards better health, says WHO.
  3. Nayor M., Shah R.V., Miller P.E., Blodgett J.B., Tanguay M., Pico A.R., Murthy V.L., Malhotra R., Houstis N.E., Deik A., Pierce K.A., Bullock K., Dailey L., Velagaleti R.S., Moore S.A., Ho J.E., Baggish A.L., Clish C.B., Larson M.G., Vasan R.S., Lewis G.D
  4. Center for Disease Control and Prevention [internet], Atlanta (GA): US Department of Health and Human Services; Measuring physical activity intensity
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