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How Much Exercise is Enough to Be Healthy? Here’s How to Know

Do you ever feel like you could be doing more to stay active and maintain a healthy body weight, but aren’t sure where to start?

And exactly how much exercise per week is considered enough?

Well, fear not my friends, we’re breaking down the current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans and giving you all the juicy details on how much exercise per week you really need to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

And if you need support, accountability, and community to help you get more exercise, you most definitely want to check out our StrongHer in 6 program where we’ll take you from couch to capable in 6 months.

The current physical activity recommendations

First things first, let’s talk about what the Guidelines actually say.

Cardiovascular exercise recommendations

In terms of cardiovascular exercise, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, adults should aim for:

  • At least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity, or
  • At least 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or
  • An equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity throughout the week.

That means, you should be getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity OR 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week OR some combination of both spread throughout the week as shown in the graphic below.

Exercise guidelines for adults

This may seem like a lot, but don’t worry, it’s really just 30 minutes per day of moderate intensity activity or 15 minutes per day of vigorous intensity physical activity.

The recommendation for pregnant and postpartum women is also at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week. Additionally, if you habitually engaged in vigorous-intensity aerobic activity or were physically active before pregnancy, you can continue these activities during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Consult your health care provider about whether or how to adjust your physical activity during pregnancy and after the baby is born.

Remember though — these are the minimum recommended amounts to maintain baseline cardiorespiratory fitness.

Strength training recommendations

But wait, there’s more!

In addition to aerobic exercise, adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity involving all major muscle groups at least two days per week.

Strength training with resistance or weights is how you care for your musculoskeletal system. Your bones, muscles, and joints support your body and give you the ability to live your life without physical limitations — like climbing the stairs, getting up from the toilet, and carrying groceries.

Preserving bone, joint, and muscle health is essential as we age if we hope to maintain our ability to live independently. The best way to do that is through progressive muscle-strengthening activities to preserve or increase muscle mass, strength, and power.

So what exactly is moderate or vigorous aerobic activity?

There are two ways to tell what constitutes moderate or vigorous physical activity.

Subjective “feel” or perceived effort

Moderate physical activity includes things like brisk walking, swimming, or raking the yard. It’s a sustained effort that feels moderate or somewhat hard.

Vigorous intensity activity includes things like running, shoveling heavy snow, or aerobic dancing. It’s a sustained effort that feels hard to very hard.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, you can apply the “talk test” to determine the intensity of your activity as follows:

  • Steady conversation is associated with moderate intensity aerobic exercise. You could carry on a conversation, but you couldn’t sing.
  • Vigorous intensity is an exercise intensity where only a few words are sustainable. In other words, you can’t say more than a few words without pausing for breath.

The Mayo Clinic provides some specific clues for determining your exercise intensity:

  • With moderate activity:
    • Your breathing quickens, but you’re not out of breath.
    • You develop a light sweat after about 10 minutes of activity.
  • With vigorous activity:
    • Your breathing is deep and rapid.
    • You develop a sweat after only a few minutes of activity.

Heart rate measurements based on calculated max heart rate

Another way to determine the intensity of your cardio exercise is through monitoring your heart rate. To use this method, you first have to figure out your maximum heart rate — the upper limit of what your cardiovascular system can handle during physical activity. You can calculate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. For example, if you’re 42 years old, subtract 42 from 220 to get a maximum heart rate of 178. This is the average maximum number of times your heart should beat per minute during exercise.

Once you know your maximum heart rate, you can calculate your desired target heart rate zone — the level at which your heart is being exercised and conditioned but not overworked.

The American Heart Association generally recommends a target heart rate of:

  • Moderate exercise intensity: 50% to about 70% of your maximum heart rate
  • Vigorous exercise intensity: 70% to about 85% of your maximum heart rate

The American College of Sports Medicine uses heart rate percentages that are even higher:

  • Moderate: Moderate intensity exercise is estimated at 65-75 %HRmax.
  • Vigorous: Vigorous exercise is 76-96 %HRmax

If you’re not fit or you’re just beginning an exercise program, aim for the lower end of your target heart rate zone. Then, gradually build up the intensity. If you’re healthy and want to exercise at a vigorous intensity, opt for the higher end of the zone.

How to determine your target heart rate zone

Calculate your target heart rate zones

We cover all of this in depth and cheer you on in our StrongHer in 6 program.

The benefits of exercise and risks of sedentary behavior

Now, I know what you’re thinking – but why? Why do I even need to exercise?

And what happens if I don’t meet the recommended exercise requirements?

Well, the benefits are MANY and, unfortunately, the very real health risks and negative consequences are UGLY. Let’s look at the big ones.

Disease prevention benefits

Regular activity helps prevent chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and certain types of cancer (such as breast, colon, endometrium, and lung cancer).

In other words, failing to meet the guidelines for activity increases your risk factors for a number of diseases and chronic conditions.

Brain and mental health benefits

In addition to minimizing your risks of developing disease, regular exercise can also improve your brain health and mental health.

It’s well documented that exercise can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve your overall mood. But did you know that physical activity may also improve brain health and cognitive function?

Memory, attention, mental processing speed, and executive function (planning and organizing as well as monitoring and controlling behaviors and emotions) can all be improved with greater amounts of physical activity.

Physical activity also lowers the risk of developing cognitive impairment, such as dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Exercise even improves impaired cognitive health from conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and cognitive decline due to aging.

Some of the benefits of physical activity for brain health occur immediately after a session of activity, such as reduced feelings of short-term anxiety, improved sleep, and improved aspects of cognitive function.

With regular physical activity, improvements are seen in long-term anxiety, deep sleep, and components of executive function.

Bone and joint health benefits

Healthy bones, joints, and muscles are critical to your ability to do everyday tasks without physical limitations, such as climbing stairs, working in your garden, or carrying groceries.

Progressive strength training preserves and can increase muscle mass, strength, and power.

Aerobic activity doesn’t build muscle the same way that strength training does, but it may help slow the loss of muscle as you age.

People who participate in aerobic activity and strength training programs of moderate or vigorous intensity are able to slow the decline in bone density that is common in aging adults.

Physical function and fall prevention benefits

Regular physical activity can prevent the loss of your ability to function in a way that enables you to do everyday activities, take care of yourself, and live independently without assistance.

People who are physically active have fewer functional limitations and those who currently have physical limitations can also benefit from getting enough exercise per week.

Additionally, physical activity reduces the risk of falling and fall-related injuries, such as hip fractures.

Sleep benefits

In addition to feeling better, adults who are more physically active sleep better. And let’s face it, sleeping better makes EVERYTHING better!

The more moderate- to-vigorous intensity activity you do regularly, the less time it takes to fall asleep and the more time you spend in bed is actually sleeping. Your sleep quality improves and you’ll get more deep sleep, which is a key component of physical and mental restoration.

With more moderate- to-vigorous intensity activity, you’ll also likely experience significantly less daytime sleepiness and reduced need to use sleep-aid medications. Regular physical activity has also been shown to improve sleep in those with insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea. Also, the risk of developing these conditions also decreases with a greater volume of activity.

Quality of life benefits

People who are regularly active report having a better quality of life.

Obviously, a huge part of this is that you are physically fit enough to live your life on your own terms. But strong evidence demonstrates that the perceived quality of life is improved by regular physical activity.

The physical fitness you gain from regular activity gives you the ability to function in everyday life without it being overly taxing, such as climbing stairs, playing with your dog, or carrying groceries.

How long does it take to feel the benefits of exercise?

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, “A single session of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity can reduce blood pressure, improve insulin sensitivity, improve sleep, reduce anxiety symptoms, and improve some aspects of cognition on the day that it is performed.”

And while some health benefits can occur immediately after a single workout, other benefits begin with as little as 60 minutes a week, with most of the benefits being felt after an accumulation of regular exercise amounting to at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise.

Any amount of physical exercise is helpful and better than none, but most of these improvements become even greater with the regular performance of moderate-to- vigorous physical activity.

Disease risk reduction and improved physical function can accrue within days to weeks after consistently being more physically active.

So, the more you do, the better off you’ll be in the long run.

What if I’m just starting to get active?

If you’re like “hey, um, how do get all those awesome benefits?” and you’re just getting rolling, you’re in luck — that’s EXACTLY what we walk you through step-by-step in our StrongHer in 6 group program.

The Physical Activity Guidelines are clear — some physical activity is better than none.

If you currently do not do any moderate- or vigorous-intensity physical activity beyond basic movement from daily life activities, start with reducing sedentary behavior and replace it with light-intensity physical activity and gradually increase to moderate-intensity physical activity.

If you are currently kinda-sorta active but do not yet meet the guidelines, start with small increases in moderate-intensity physical activity and gradually add in some vigorous physical activity.

If you currently meet the guidelines, keep doing what you’re doing and add more moderate-to-vigorous physical activity as you’re able to gain more benefits.

And if you’re crushing it and hitting the upper ends of the target activity range, keep that shit up.

When beginning weight training exercises, start with your own body weight and work up to adding additional weight from there.

The takeaway:  Move more, with more intensity, and sit less

So what are you waiting for? Get up and get moving! Remember, every little bit counts when it comes to heart health, cardiometabolic health, lower risk of heart disease, improving sleep duration, and avoiding weight gain.

Take the stairs instead of the elevator, go for a walk during your lunch break, or try a new fitness class with your friends and get ALL THE HEALTH BENEFITS!

How being active makes life better

And over time, the more you do, the more you’ll benefit!

Your body (and mind) will thank you.

And remember that you don’t have to go it alone — we can support you every step of the way. It’s never too late to get started and feel the awesome effects of being more active. Check out StrongHer in 6 and we’ll guide you from where you are to meeting these guidelines in enjoyable and sustainable ways in 6 months.

__________________________

References:

Mayo Clinic. “Exercise intensity: How to measure it” https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/exercise-intensity/art-20046887

Department of Health and Human Services. “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition.” https://health.gov/paguidelines/second-edition/pdf/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf.

American College of Sports Medicine. “Tips for Monitoring Aerobic Exercise Intensity.” https://www.acsm.org/docs/default-source/files-for-resource-library/exercise-intensity-infographic.pdf?sfvrsn=f467c793_2

Harvard Health Publishing. “Exercising to Relax.” https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax.

Mayo Clinic. “Exercise: 7 Benefits of Regular Physical Activity.” https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/exercise/art-20048389.

Bennie JA, De Cocker K, Teychenne MJ, Brown WJ, Biddle SJH. The epidemiology of aerobic physical activity and muscle-strengthening activity guideline adherence among 383,928 U.S. adults. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2019 Apr 18;16(1):34. doi: 10.1186/s12966-019-0797-2. PMID: 30999896; PMCID: PMC6472085. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30999896/

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Hi, I'm Alison

I’m the Founder + CEO of Miles To Go Athletics.

My own journey has taken me from always-injured-and-in-pain-farthest-thing-from-an-athlete in my 30s to ultramarathoner + competitive weightlifter in my 40s and beyond. So I firmly believe that athleticism is accessible to EVERYONE and is actually the key to better quality of life.

My team + I are here to help you stop putting your life on hold due to pain, injuries, and “getting old” and instead get back to the things you really want to be doing – like being active with friends & family, chasing bucket list goals, and feeling badass at any age.

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