Active Voice: From Prescription Pad to Movement Menu — Why the Updated Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (PAG) are a Game-Changer

By Michelle Segar, Ph.D., M.P.H., M.S., and Martin Gibala, Ph.D.

Michelle Segar, Ph.D., M.P.H., M.S. Martin Gibala, Ph.D.
Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily represent positions or policies of ACSM.

Michelle Segar, Ph.D., M.P.H., M.S., directs the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center (SHARP) at the University of Michigan. From 2014 to 2017, she served as chair for the U.S. National Physical Activity Plan’s Communications Committee. For more than 25 years, Dr. Segar has investigated messaging strategies and systems that cultivate sustainable physical activity and self-care. She also trains health and fitness professionals to use these methods to enhance effectiveness in working with people and organizations. Dr. Segar presented a Presidential Lecture at the 2017 ACSM Annual Meeting, entitled “No Sweat: The Surprising Science Behind Lasting Motivation and Sustained Physical Activity.”

Martin Gibala, Ph.D., is a professor and chair of the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He studies the beneficial effects of exercise at the molecular-to-whole-body level in both healthy individuals and people with chronic diseases. In recent years, much of Dr. Gibala’s research has focused on physiological adaptations to interval training and health implications thereof. Dr. Gibala is a member of ACSM. He also presented one of the Presidential Lectures at the 2017 ACSM Annual Meeting, entitled “Interval Training for Health: Hype, Help and Hope.”

Dr. Segar advocates a low-pressure approach to motivate sustainable physical activity, while Dr. Gibala encourages brief, intense exercise for time-efficient training. In certain respects, their individual positions concerning physical activity might be viewed as divergent. However, their messaging actually presents a shared underlying approach to promoting physical activity—when it comes to sustaining exercise, people need to make their own choices about what they do based on their preferences and lifestyle needs.

In today’s Active Voice, Dr. Segar and Dr. Gibala discuss their well-aligned perspectives on how health and fitness professionals can best leverage important aspects of the 2018 release of the Physical Activity Guidelines to help individuals increase and sustain healthy physical activity.

This is a significant moment for our field: the newly released Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (PAG), 2nd edition includes a potential game-changer for boosting population-level physical activity. This revised PAG removed the previous requirement that a bout of appropriate activity include a minimum sustained duration (i.e., physical activity must last at least 10 minutes in order to count). People are now given permission to move in ways they prefer and that fit into their complex lives.

The great news is that the updated PAG provides room for both approaches, noting bouts of a prescribed duration are not essential and even short episodes or small amounts of physical activity are beneficial. No single approach is right for everyone, and the best exercise is the one you will be motivated to keep doing.

This aspect of the PAG gives each person permission to reclaim ownership over their physical activity. It also aligns with behavioral research that suggests when people are active based on what they choose to do, instead of what they think they should do, they are more likely to stick with it.

Let’s stop prescribing exercise to achieve some idealized standard and, instead, offer a menu of activities that help people learn to savor movement as an inherently enjoyable aspect of daily life.

To better cultivate sustainable boosts in population physical activity, we, as professionals, need new metaphors and messages that will help people believe they can and should tailor their physical activity choices (e.g., places, intensity, durations) to their personal preferences and unique needs.

To achieve this ultimate goal, we propose a new metaphor for the public; one that most people already use when thinking about food. We call it the movement menu. When we look at menus and try to decide what to eat, our decision is based on an array of momentary needs and wants like hunger, time available and culinary preferences. No menu choice is privileged as best, and many selections could meet our needs. In fact, greater variety enhances the dining experience.

Why not adopt a similar menu approach when it comes to being active and call it a “movement menu”? This new framing of movement:
  1. Takes the Pressure Off: Menus offer flexibility with any given plan or situation. It’s okay to shorten a workout at the gym; do a different activity than planned; do it in a different location or at a different intensity; or, if necessary, postpone it until tomorrow, without feeling compelled to subject oneself to motivation-sapping guilt.
  2. Enables Personal Choice: People don’t order a three-course meal when they only have time for a quick snack. The movement menu allows people to choose what they have time for and enjoy. Studies show that any activity for any amount of time is worth doing, and personal choice makes the experience more pleasurable. Even stair-climbing exercise “snacks” or short periods of activity spread throughout the day can be beneficial. Sitting less counts too.
  3. Gives People Permission: Empower people to choose to move in ways that will best help them realize their “whys” for exercising. If health is top of mind but time is limited, brief vigorous exercise can be as effective as longer continuous workouts. If generating positive feelings or calming down is the goal today, identify the best activity or intensity to deliver it. Some people love to feel the burn while others feel resentful or too tired just thinking about sweating. Learning that everything counts lets each person match their activity choices to their unique wants and needs in any given moment.
With a movement menu, moving your body counts and is worth doing—whether it’s walking to the bus stop, running up the stairs, parking in the last row, spinning at the gym, dancing with the door closed or chasing your kids.

Supported by the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s Move Your Way campaign, the new PAG gives each person permission to be active in the preferred way, at any given time. So, let’s entice the population to become more active using a movement menu and this new message: Choose to move as you see fit, and savor the incredible mind-body benefits!