How much exercise do you actually need to be “healthy?”
No matter what you do, the key is consistency.
Reclaiming a healthy lifestyle after two years of lockdown can seem like a daunting task. And while a good pair of Nikes or a pricey Peloton might seem like the clear ticket to improve your physical health, it doesn’t have to come at the expense of your wallet. Achieving good physical fitness is simpler than you might think.
The key is movement. Of course, that sounds like a no-brainer: Logically, more movement has to be good for you. But figuring out what physical activity counts as beneficial can get a little hairy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average adult should observe a minimum of 150 minutes of “moderate-intensity aerobic activity” or 75 minutes of “vigorous-intensity aerobic activity” each week. This could be brisk walking, jogging, or running, activities we readily associate with exercise and are typically center-stage of the fitness sphere. But are those the only ways to achieve fitness? Are alternative forms just as impactful as traditional cardio and do you necessarily need 150 minutes a week?
To answer that question, says Melissa Bopp, an associate professor of kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University, we need to establish that while physical activity and exercise overlap, they aren’t necessarily the same.
“Physical activity would be any kind of bodily movement that increases your energy expenditure beyond the resting level,” Bopp tells Inverse. It comes in four domains: occupational with work-related activities like walking, lifting, or carrying; domestic with housework, yardwork, and childcare; transportation like bicycling or climbing the stairs, and leisure time, which involves more structured, repetitive exercise but also volunteer work and even hobbies.
Building Legos may not exactly rev up your heart, burn fat, or build muscle but experts say getting your body to engage in some physical activity, regardless of type, is far better than nothing at all.
“Research has consistently shown exercise is beneficial to health and increases longevity. Research also demonstrates that physical activity, any bodily movement, whether it is structured or not, or done for a purpose is also beneficial,” Stephen Ball, a professor of physical therapy at the University of Missouri and state fitness specialist, tells Inverse. “People that are physically active have better health and live longer than sedentary people. The body doesn’t know if you are performing ‘exercise’ or if you are mowing the grass, it just knows the energy requirement has increased.”
While aerobic activity is considered the gold standard for maximizing heart health, lowering your risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure, and improving mental health, you can go at it multiple ways. Hiking, swimming, dancing, jumping rope, following a workout video, doing housework, gardening, and even playing active video games can all help increase your daily physical activity levels and get your heart pumping.
There are some caveats, like age, which can impact what sort of physical activity is best for an individual. Because we lose muscle strength, sense of balance, and flexibility as we age, Ball says older adults and seniors should focus more on physical activities that promote building and maintaining muscle and flexibility over increasing cardiovascular endurance. Examples of this type of activity include tai chi or swimming.
The CDC has an online activity planner you can use to figure out how long you should do any type of aerobic activity — whether it’s shoveling snow out of your driveway, mowing the lawn, or even cheerleading — to rack up the recommended 150 minutes. Ball says a good indicator that you’re achieving that moderate zone of physical activity is by doing the talk test: You should be able to hold a conversation but breathless enough that you aren’t able to sing.
This brings us to the crucial question: Does 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week apply to everyone? For the most part, yes. For years, scientists have sought to quantify the ideal physical activity “dosage” people need. In the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, they arrived at 150 minutes as the sweet spot, which can be broken up into 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five days a week. This consensus was based on numerous, large-scale, epidemiological studies that found this amount of moderate-intensity activity correlated with a lower risk of premature death and debilitating diseases like stroke, heart attack, type two diabetes, and many forms of cancer, Ulf Ekelund, a professor at the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences, told The New York Times in April.
But if you’ve been a consummate couch potato, no fear. The CDC recommends you aim instead for 60 minutes a week with light- or moderate-intensity physical activity done in short bursts throughout the week, which studies have shown accrue the biggest health gains for sedentary folks. For example, you could walk slowly for five minutes a day five to six times a week, gradually ramping up the pace and duration.
Bopp says there needs to be more of a focus on getting people physically active than worrying about whether they are doing a structured, purposeful exercise. Over the last couple of decades, Americans have become increasingly inactive with only 53 percent of adults age 18 and older meeting the CDC’s recommendations for aerobic physical activity, as reported in 2021.
“It’s important to figure out what it is that you like to do, what type of activity you enjoy doing, and then do it,” Raymond Jones, an exercise physiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham tells Inverse. “Because we’re more likely to keep doing it and reap those benefits. It’s better than saying, ‘Oh well, they tell me I need to engage in 150 minutes of brisk walking, jogging, or running. There’s more out there to it.’”
The key is consistency, Jones and Bopp say, which is easier to achieve if you actually like the activity you are doing. If you make being active a regular habit, reaching goals such as building endurance and muscle, improving flexibility, or losing weight become much more attainable. A better quality of life is all about the baby steps.
DETOX is an Inverse series that cuts through the hype and confusion of today’s health and wellness claims.
Now read this: Do you need 8 glasses of water a day? Hydration scientists demystify the number