How much exercise do you really need to stay healthy?

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Do you know how much physical activity you need in order to stay healthy or to improve your health? Alarmingly, not that many people know the recommended weekly amount of physical activity, in fact, only 38% of women are able to identify the correct time period recommended by health experts (150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week). However, the recommendations are not all that simple and straightforward and depend on several factors.

How much exercise you should do weekly depends on your age and another factor to take into account is a type of exercise you do. Moderate aerobic exercise is not the same as vigorous aerobic exercise. They are both beneficial but they have a slightly different impact. When it comes to vigorous exercise, you don’t need to do as much and that’s because one minute of vigorous activity provides the same health benefits as two minutes of moderate activity.

Then, there is also strength training and the recommendation is to do strength exercises on two or more days a week that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms). This is in addition to recommendations for aerobic activities.

It sounds like you have to be quite active in order to meet the minimum exercise recommendations, doesn’t it? But what about people with pre-existing medical conditions such as those with high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes? Common sense would tell you that exercise recommendations wouldn’t be the same for those, right? What about office workers who sit all day? And pregnant ladies? Yes, we are all a bit different and that’s reason why I decided to see what research and recommendations are out there, just to clarify how active you should really be. But first let’s look at the general guidelines in detail…

Exercise guidelines for adults aged 19–64 years

Most people will fall under this category and here is what NHS recommends:

1. Adults should aim to be active daily. Over a week, activity should add up to at least 150 minutes (2½ hours) of moderate intensity activity in bouts of 10 minutes or more – one way to approach this is to do 30 minutes on at least 5 days a week.
2. Alternatively, comparable benefits can be achieved through 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity spread across the week or combinations of moderate and vigorous intensity activity.
3. Adults should also undertake physical activity to improve muscle strength on at least two days a week.
4. All adults should minimise the amount of time spent being sedentary (sitting) for extended periods.

Moderate aerobic activity

Examples of activities that require moderate effort for most people include:

  • brisk walking
  • water aerobics
  • riding a bike on level ground or with few hills
  • doubles tennis
  • pushing a lawn mower
  • hiking
  • skateboarding
  • rollerblading
  • volleyball
  • basketball

Moderate activity will raise your heart rate, and make you breathe faster and feel warmer. One way to tell if you’re working at a moderate level is if you can still talk, but you can’t sing the words to a song.

Vigorous aerobic  activity

Examples of activities that require vigorous effort for most people include:

  • jogging or running
  • swimming fast
  • riding a bike fast or on hills
  • singles tennis
  • football
  • rugby
  • skipping rope
  • hockey
  • aerobics
  • gymnastics
  • martial arts

Strength training

In addition to moderate and vigorous activities, it’s also recommended to do some strength exercises, at least a couple of times a week.

Strength exercises are beneficial for keeping your bones strong and for maintaining a healthy weight. 

You don’t need weights to do the strength training – you can also use your body weight or work with resistance bands. Heavy gardening also counts as muscle-strengthening exercise.

Exercise recommendations for those with pre-existing medical conditions

High blood pressure

If you have high blood pressure, exercise is actually recommended to lower it. Inactivity is linked to this condition so your doctor will first suggest being more active in order to bring your blood pressure to more normal level. 

However, you do need to keep in mind that exercise causes high blood pressure to increase for a short period of time but it goes back to normal as soon as you stop the activity.

If your blood pressure is really high, it’s not recommended to exercise and the best is to ask your doctor for an advice on when you should start a new exercise regime. More information on this page from Blood Pressure UK.

It’s clear by now that weekly exercise recommendations don’t apply to those with high blood pressure. Your doctor will give you the best guidance on how much to exercise and what type of exercise is better for you.

High cholesterol

If you have high cholesterol, regular exercise plays an important role in lowering it as it helps to keep your weight down and good cholesterol up. But how much exercise you should do and the intensity of it really depends on your general health and fitness levels.

For example, if you are middle-aged, haven’t exercised in a long time and have some other health conditions, it wouldn’t be wise to start playing energetic games of squash all of a sudden. Instead, you should engage in exercise at a level that is appropriate for your present state of physical fitness. Over time you can slowly increase the intensity or length of the exercise to suit your improved fitness.

There are actually some recommendations on how much exercise you should do if you want to lower your cholesterol levels –  American Heart Association (AHA) recommends an average of 40 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity three or four times a week. 

Other conditions

Exercise recommendations are different for those with diabetes but they may vary by diabetes type. People with diabetes are encouraged to exercise regularly as this helps to control blood sugar better but if they are on sugar lowering medication they need to take some precautions first. 

Exercise in pregnancy is also recommended, every day if you can and could be as simple as walking daily for 30 minutes. You can also do other activities but there are certain things you should avoid doing as explained on NHS website.

Exercise recommendations for office workers

So you are an office worker and sit all day. Should you be more active than what the official recommendations state? 

There are actually recommendations specifically for office workers and the key is to stand as much as you can during your working day and have regular breaks, away from the desk. Here is what exactly you should do (as per this NHS resource):

  • The initial aim should be to work towards getting at least two hours a day of standing and light walking during working hours, and eventually work up to a total of four hours per day.
  • Seated work should be regularly broken up with standing work and vice versa. Sit–stand adjustable desk stations are highly recommended.
  • Similar to avoiding remaining in a static seated position for a long time, remaining in a static standing posture should also be avoided.

What about 7-minute workouts?

The scientific seven-minute workout is based on high-intensity training (HIIT) and uses body weight as resistance. The workout combines aerobic and resistance training to create a range of benefits such as fat loss and increased metabolism.

The 7-minute workout has been unfortunately misunderstood and people started believing that 7 minutes of exercise a day is all they need to stay healthy. Yes, the 7-minute workout has its own benefits and it’s great if you do it, but it also has its flaws.

It’s not a good idea to rely on the 7-minute workout and think that’s enough exercise for you. You should do it alongside other types of workouts such as moderate-intensity cardio.

The 7-Minute Workout is great to have on hand for days you’re short on time, but it shouldn’t replace all other workouts. (source)

Exercise recommendations – Studies

We have certain exercise recommendations in place but we also have some studies related to exercise which go beyond that. Here are just a few that I found:

Conclusion

Hopefully, you now have a better idea of how much exercise you should do and what type. As you’ve seen it’s not all that straightforward but just keep in mind that exercise is key to good health and you should do as much as you can. Try and follow exercise recommendations currently in place and do more if possible. But don’t over-do it as too much exercise can be bad for you! If you have any medical conditions consult your doctor first. This article is not intended to act as a medical advice.

4 Comments

  1. That’s a really solid article. It’s really hard to evaluate how much do you have to exercise to stay healthy and in shape, that’s why I actually focus on constantly improving myself – that’s why I know, that I definitely won’t be getting out of shape – in worst case – no progress!

    1. It’s definitely not straightforward but the best is to be active as much as you can and do more than recommended if you have time.

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