How much exercise do you really need to be “healthy?” The answer is not what you think
Find a healthy lifestyle after two years of confinement may seem like a daunting task. And while a good pair of Nikes or an expensive Peloton might seem like the clear ticket to improving your physical health, it doesn’t have to come at the expense of your wallet. Achieving good physical shape is easier than you think.
The key is movement. Of course, it seems obvious: logically, more movement has be good to you. But figuring out what physical activity is considered beneficial can get a bit hairy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average adult should get a minimum of 150 minutes of “moderate-intensity aerobic activity” or 75 minutes of “vigorous-intensity aerobic activity” each week. It could be brisk walking, jogging or running, activities that we readily associate with exercise and are usually central to the fitness sphere. But are these the only ways to achieve fitness? Do alternative forms have as much impact as traditional cardio and do you necessarily need 150 minutes a week?
To answer that question, says Melissa Bopp, associate professor of kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University, we need to establish that while physical activity and exercise overlap, they are not necessarily the same.
“Physical activity would be any type of bodily movement that increases your energy expenditure above resting level,” Bopp said. Reverse. It comes in four areas: occupational with work-related activities like walking, lifting or carrying; servant with housework, gardening and childcare; transportation such as cycling or climbing stairs, and recreation, which involves more structured and repetitive exercise, but also volunteer work and even hobbies.
Building Legos can’t exactly speed up your heart, burn fat, or build muscle, but experts say getting your body to engage in physical activity of any kind is far better than Nothing at all.
“Research has consistently shown that exercise is beneficial to health and increases longevity. Research also demonstrates that physical activity, any bodily movement, whether structured or unstructured, or performed for a specific purpose, is also beneficial,” said Stephen Ball, professor of physical therapy at the University of Missouri and state fitness expert. Reverse. “Physically active people are healthier and live longer than sedentary people. The body doesn’t know if you’re exercising or mowing the grass, it just knows that energy needs have increased.
Although aerobic activity is considered the gold standard for maximizing heart health, reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure, and improving mental health, there are many ways you can achieve this. Hiking, swimming, dancing, jumping rope, watching a workout video, doing housework, gardening, and even playing active video games can all help you increase your daily physical activity level and make beat your heart.
Some caveats, such as age, can affect the type of physical activity that is best for an individual. Because we lose muscle strength, sense of balance and flexibility as we age, Ball says seniors and older adults should focus more on physical activities that help build and maintain muscle and flexibility rather than increasing cardiovascular endurance. Examples of this type of activity include tai chi or swimming.
The CDC has a online activity planner you can use to determine how long you should do any type of aerobic activity – whether it’s shoveling snow from your driveway, mowing the lawn, or even cheerleading – to rack up the 150 minutes recommended. Ball says a good indicator that you’re hitting that zone of moderate physical activity is to take the conversation test: you should be able to hold a conversation but breathless enough that you can’t sing.
This brings us to the crucial question: does 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week apply to everyone? For the most part, yes. For years, scientists have sought to quantify the ideal “dosage” of physical activity that people need. In the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, they arrived at 150 minutes as a sweet spot, which can be broken down into 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five days a week. This consensus was based on numerous large-scale epidemiological studies which showed that this amount of moderate-intensity activity was correlated with a lower risk of premature death and debilitating diseases such as strokes, heart attacks, diabetes type 2 and many forms of cancer, Ulf Ekelund, professor at the Norwegian School of Sport Science, Told The New York Times in April.
But if you’ve been a consumed couch potato, fear not. The CDC recommends you’re aiming for 60 minutes a week instead with light to moderate physical activity in short bursts throughout the week, which studies have shown accrue the greatest health gains for sedentary people. For example, you can walk slowly for five minutes a day five to six times a week, gradually increasing the pace and duration.
Bopp says the focus needs to be more on people’s physical activity than whether they’re doing structured, targeted exercise. Over the past two decades, Americans have become increasingly inactive with only 53% of adults 18 and older meeting CDC recommendations for aerobic physical activity, as reported in 2021.
“It’s important to figure out what you like to do, what kind of activity you like to do, and then do it,” said Raymond Jones, an exercise physiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Reverse. “Because we are more likely to continue doing so and reap those benefits. It’s better than saying, “Well, they tell me I have to do 150 minutes of brisk walking, jogging, or running.” There is more there.
The key is consistency, say Jones and Bopp, which is easier to achieve if you really enjoy the activity you’re doing. If you make physical activity a regular habit, it becomes much easier to achieve goals such as building endurance and muscle, improving flexibility, or losing weight. A better quality of life comes first small steps.
DETOX is a Reverse series that cuts through the hype and confusion of today’s health and wellness claims.
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