“If there is any deficiency in food or exercise, the body will fall sick.” Hippocrates Circa 450 BC
For thousands of years we’ve known exercise is good for our body. If we don’t exercise, we’ll get weaker and weaker leading to illness and early death. It’s no different than trying to start your car after it hasn’t been used for months. Your car needs to run to work well and so does your body. But how much exercise do we really need to be healthy and prevent disease?
Exercise Guidelines Galore
When it comes to recommending exercise and physical activity, there’s no shortage of guidelines out there. Fortunately, most of them are similar recommending 150 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous activity per week.
This translates to roughly 20-30 minutes per day of brisk walking or any other activity that gets your heart and breathing rate up. However, there isn’t any requirement to spread the 150 minutes out evenly over the week. You can do an hour one day and do 30 minutes on three other day. And it’s generally recommended you do your activity in chunks of 10 or more minutes.
That may change, though. More recently the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has removed the minimum of ten minutes of exercise at a time. As long as you get your 150 minutes or more per week, it doesn’t matter if you do it in 20, 10 or 2 minute increments. It’s the total amount of movement that counts.
These guidelines are quite different from the ones I grew up on. I was told I needed to get 20-60 minutes of exercise, 3-5 days per week at about 60% to 80% of my maximum heart rate. The old guidelines gave us the frequency, duration and intensity, and were focused on improving fitness levels. If your exercise follows this pattern, great. The drawback of these guidelines was it gave many people an all or none impression, such that if you couldn’t achieve all of this you might as well do nothing.
Then there’s the recommendation to aim for 10 000 steps of walking per day. Where does this fit in? Despite being promoted on your FitBit, pedometer or other wearable device, this isn’t an official exercise guideline. This target was created as a marketing campaign in Japan leading up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. It’s a nice round number, easy to remember and walking is the most common type of activity.
But 10 000 steps per day is far above the minimal guidelines. A reasonable pace for many of us is about 100 steps/minute. At this pace, 10 000 steps works out to 100 minutes of time in a day or 700 minutes per week; nearly five times the official guidelines.
So how much exercise do you really need?
Before we get to that, we need to recognize these are just recommendations based on expert opinion taking into account the benefits of exercise along with what may be feasible for most people. There isn’t anything magical of doing 150 minutes of activity per week. There’s really no difference between 149 minutes and 151 minutes. Likewise doing 9999 steps in a day is no different from 10 001 steps.
From a health point of view, the greatest gains of exercise come from doing nothing to something. For the person who does no activity at all (and there are people out there), getting in 75 minutes of exercise in a week can reduce their chance of early death by 5%. Even getting up and walking around for two minutes can help keep your blood sugar in check. If you do 150 minutes per week, that’s about a 10% reduction in chance of early death.
But it doesn’t stop there. With exercise, the more you do, the greater the benefits. In terms of reducing your chances of getting disease and early death, the benefits continue up until about 750 minutes per week. This is five times the minimal recommended amount and associated with a 25% reduction in early death. Beyond that, you’ll still continue to get increased benefits of exercise, it just will be at a slower rate.
If counting steps is your thing, do you need to get in 10 000 steps per day? While 10 000 steps is about 700 minutes per week, all steps throughout the day count. In contrast, the official guidelines only count activity that is at least of a moderate intensity. That being said, as little as 4000 steps in a day has been shown to reduce chance of early death over four years by more than half compared to people doing no steps.
What amount is right for you?
To figure out just how much exercise is ideal for you depends on two things. One, how much activity you’re doing now (plus your current fitness level) and two, what are your goals. These things go hand-in-hand.
When setting goals, in order for them to be realistic and feasible, you need to take into account what your starting point is. If you’re currently doing leisurely walks and have never run before, setting a goal of doing a 10 km run in the next month might not be realistic. And regardless of your starting point, training for that 10 km run will likely require you to do more than 150 minutes of exercise per week.
Maybe your goal is to lose weight. While I’ve written before that exercise isn’t so great for weight loss, it is an important component for part of a weight loss program. Very few guidelines exist specifically for weight loss, the ones that do, suggest up to an hour per day of activity.
For those of you who are regularly active and doing more exercise than the guidelines, good for you and keep it up. The guidelines are minimal recommendations, and they actually suggest everyone progresses to doing more. The point being, if you are doing more than the guidelines, don’t reduce you’re activity. And if you are just meeting the guidelines, try and do some more for even greater benefits.
If you’re interested in improving your fitness level, then you really need to do more than you’re doing now. By doing more, you challenge your body physically, which over time will adapt and get in better shape. Again this depends on your starting point. If you currently run a fast 5 km, then you’ll need to go for longer runs or do harder training sessions, or do both. However, for elderly people who are inactive, even doing simple weight exercises can improve fitness.
The guidelines for exercise provide a great lower threshold for which we should all be meeting. From there, however, how much you need to be doing can be individualized taking into account your current fitness and activity goals. And remember, the best exercise program is the one that you can maintain in the long-term.
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