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How Much Exercise Do We Really Need?

April 11, 2023

A middle-aged man is getting enough exercise by going for a run.

When it comes to the amount of exercise needed for health and longevity, one size does not fit all. A great starting point is the American Heart Association’s (AHA) guidelines of a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. That breaks down to 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.

But what exactly is moderate exercise and how does it differ from vigorous exercise? And how can you tailor the guidelines to meet your own interests and lifestyle? In short, what’s really ‘enough’?

Experts say that people who work out vigorously can cut their minutes in half to 75 per week. Or people who enjoy doing something every day of the week can follow the 11-minute-a-day rule, but only if it is intense enough. They tell us that strength-based exercise is considered vigorous, but only if it’s heart-pumping enough. And what about walking 10,000 steps a day, is that vigorous enough?

Moderate vs. Vigorous Activity

“To meet the AHA’s heart-health recommendations, you need to push yourself,” says Mervet Asfour, MD, a primary care physician with Atlantic Health System. “Moderate physical activity requires breaking a sweat. Your heart rate should reach 50 -75% of your maximum working heart rate, which will allow you to carry on a conversation. Vigorous physical activity should be intense enough that you can’t hold a conversation, or even say even a few words without pausing for a breath. Your heart rate should be above 75% of your maximum heart.”

Dr. Asfour explains that there’s no need to buy a heart monitor to gage your effort level, just pay attention to how hard your body’s working. She also reminds people that physical activity doesn’t always mean structured classes, strenuous exercise, and expensive gym memberships. There are lots of free things to do online in your home and outdoors. Just make sure the activities are appropriate to your personal fitness level so you can build strength and endurance over time without getting hurt.

A Good Place to Start

According to the AHA, only one in five adults is getting enough exercise to maintain good health and longevity. Here’s how you can begin to build fitness into your lifestyle and slow down the aging process.

Walking is a great jumping off point. Try 20 minutes at whatever pace you choose and schedule it 3 times a week. Once this habit is set and consistent, you can add onto it if you like. Walk longer. Walk faster. Jog. Go beyond the walk and explore online videos for Pilates or Zumba. Shoot baskets at the park. Try pickle ball. Dance. The goal is to find something inexpensive that you enjoy and will want to do again and again.

“One of the best predictors of life expectancy is your fitness level,” says Dr. Asfour. “Sitting at a desk all day doesn’t help any of us because the less we move, the faster we age. Being physically active can reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, fatty liver disease and dementia. You’ll also elevate your mood and improve your sleep.”

Dr. Asfour adds that, of course, even a little physical activity is better than nothing, but it’s important to work toward the AHA guidelines and find what will work for you over the long run.

Be Proactive About Your Health

To stay fit and healthy, it's good to have a primary care provider who knows and understands your health history and wellness goals.

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