Raphye Alexius/Image Source, Getty Images
(Raphye Alexius/Image Source, Getty Images)

Major life milestones – such as starting a new school or job, getting married, having children or retiring – often lead to a drop in physical activity levels that could harm heart health, a new science report warns.

People and their health care professionals should pay closer attention to periods of transition to prevent an increase in sedentary behaviors, according to the scientific statement published Wednesday in the American Heart Association journal Circulation.

“Physical activity is an important heart-healthy behavior and too much sitting and inactivity is not good for you,” writing group chair Abbi D. Lane-Cordova said in a news release. Lane-Cordova is an assistant professor in exercise science at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

“This is a particularly important topic right now because, in addition to life’s other major events, the COVID-19 pandemic is another disruption of everyone’s daily routines and activity levels,” she said.

Federal physical activity guidelines call for 150 minutes or more of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week for adults, or a combination of the two. Recommendations for adults also include muscle strengthening activities at least twice a week. Children and adolescents should get 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 1 in 5 teens and 1 in 4 adults meet these goals on a regular basis.

Research shows they are even less likely to do so during major life events and transitions.

The new statement’s writing group reviewed research on physical activity levels during 17 of life’s milestones and transitions and found activity levels dropped during nine of them. These included entering a new school – be it elementary, middle, high school or college – and starting a new job or making a career change. People also moved less after getting married or pregnant, becoming parents, retiring or entering a long-term care facility.

There was no conclusive evidence, however, that other life events – such as losing a job or spouse, getting divorced or getting remarried – led to a drop in physical activity levels.

The statement also identified groups of people that research showed most need physical activity support during life transitions. These included people with lower levels of education; people from sexual or gender minority groups; Black people; and women during pregnancy and parenthood.

The statement also identified a wide range of factors influencing young people’s ability to stay physically active, such as neighborhood crime rates and proximity to school or recreational facilities.

Because sedentary behavior can be a cardiovascular disease risk factor, the statement recommends health care professionals talk with their patients about ways to stay active during major life changes and provide guidance. It recommends tapping into community resources, such as those provided by faith-based organizations and encouraging the use of tools such as step-counting devices.

Periods of transitions are “often a time when exercise is most needed,” Lane-Cordova said. “There are so many ways people can do this. They could plan family activities that involve exercise, use free videos or websites to exercise at home or take standing breaks while at work. The most important things are to be aware of the positive health and cardiovascular impact of physical activity and make the effort to get moving.”

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