Experts flood the health and wellness field, each offering sometimes contradictory advice for appropriate amounts of physical activity. Wondering “how much should I exercise?” Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has analyzed the data and issued guidelines that people can follow to stay fit. Here’s what you should know.
How much should I exercise?
If your current levels of physical activity fall below the recommended guidelines, don’t let that keep you from exercising. Any amount of physical activity is beneficial. If possible, start small and gradually increase physical activity until reaching the recommended amounts. Here’s what you can expect based on your age and other guidelines.
Adolescents ages 6 to 17
Children at this age often have abundant energy, and while some get plenty of exercise, other find their imaginations captured more by television and video games than playing street hockey.
Federal guidelines recommend adolescents should get at least 60 minutes or more each day of moderate or vigorous exercise. Reaching that one-hour block of time impacts health more than the intensity or type of exercise, according to the guidelines. Most of the exercise should fall into the aerobic category. This includes running, playing team sports, or dancing. It should also include vigorous physical activity at least three days a week.
Adolescents should also work to build muscle at least three days a week, and complete bone strengthening exercises three days a week. Muscle strengthening exercises include climbing trees, playing on playground equipment, or lifting weights. Bone building activities could include running, tennis, or weight lifting.
Adults ages 18 to 64
In adulthood, recommended levels of exercise fall from 60 minutes daily to 150 minutes to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, although more exercise imparts additional health benefits. An equivalent combination of 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise is also a good amount to go for.
Activity should be at a moderate intensity, and can include activities such as gardening, walking at least three miles per hour, or slow bicycling. People who tend to workout more vigorously—think singles tennis, jump rope, or difficult hikes—can make do with 75 minutes each week.
Workout sessions should last at least ten minutes and spread them throughout the week, ideally on at least three separate days. At least two days a week, adults should work out all of their major muscle groups through activities such as weight lifting, using resistance bands, or doing pull-ups, push-ups, and sit-ups.
Adults ages 65 and older
Older adults should also aim for at least 150 minutes of exercise weekly, although additional exercise offers greater health benefits. Adults with chronic conditions that make it difficult to reach desired exercise amounts should do what they can and try to avoid becoming inactive.
Unfit older adults should take care to adopt an exercise regimen in accordance with their current levels of physical fitness and adjust as capabilities expand. Other than that, older adults should follow the same guidelines as younger adults. In addition to the general guidelines, they also suggest that older adults should:
- Be as physically active as their abilities and conditions allow, even if this isn’t 150 minutes of activity a week
- Do exercises that maintain or improve balance if they are at risk of falling
- Determine their level of effort for exercise relative to their level of fitness
People with health conditions (including pregnancy)
A final section of the report touches on additional considerations for special populations of adults. As the study notes, “some people have conditions that raise special issues about recommended types and amounts of physical activity.” The populations it looks at specifically in the guidelines are pregnant and post-partum women and those with chronic health conditions or disabilities.
The guidelines give examples of appropriate activities in their report, but they also point out three key messages for these groups. Namely:
- Adults with chronic conditions still obtain important health benefits from exercise
- If exercise is done according to a person’s abilities, it can still be safe
- Adults with chronic conditions or those who are pregnant should be under the care of a healthcare professional, consulting them as necessary as to the type and amount of activity appropriate for them
In all sections of the U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines, healthcare professionals stress that physical exercise is crucially important for health and attainable for any person, no matter their age or ability.
Why is aerobic exercise so important?
Cardio, or aerobic exercise, can promote good heart health, boost your energy, and help you control your weight. This type of exercise raises your heart rate and gets your blood pumping throughout your entire body. This boosts circulation of the oxygen and nutrients your body needs to work efficiently.
Federal guidelines recommend 150 minutes to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise, or a combination of the two. Here’s why they recommend making this a priority every week.
It helps you control your weight
It’s no secret working up a regular sweat is a great way to burn calories and shed fat. But did you know cardio exercise has also been shown to suppress appetite and curb cravings? The next time you feel tempted to head for the fridge, hit the treadmill instead.
It fights disease
Physical activity is linked with preventing heart disease, high blood pressure, lowering cholesterol, lowering risk of diabetes, combatting depression and other conditions.
It makes you happy
Cardio exercise promotes the production and release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers and “feel good” chemicals. As a result, you may find you feel happy, calm and relaxed after a good workout.
It gives you energy
It seems counterintuitive that rigorous cardio exercise would give a person more energy, but it’s true. Developing stronger muscles and elevating your heart rate on a regular basis will boost your overall physical stamina.
Studies have also shown that people who exercise regularly sleep better. There’s an exception to this, however. Don’t exercise too close to bedtime. You may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
It makes you smarter
There’s some science to support the theory that regularly releasing the hormones associated with cardio exercise, plus increasing blood flow, helps your brain grow. In one study, researchers found that people who exercised for one hour per day, three days a week, over the course of six months, increased the size of their brains’ hippocampus — the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
A study conducted by the International Journal of Workplace Health Management also found that people who exercised during their workday were 23 percent more productive on those days than on days they didn’t exercise. And get this: 72 percent of the study’s participants did cardio exercise.
What do they mean by muscle-strengthening exercises?
Along with aerobic exercise, muscle strengthening is a vital part of fitness for all age groups and levels of fitness. Muscle strengthening occurs when a specific muscle is put through a series of repetitions that build and condition that muscle. The ideal number of repetitions is the number right before you are not able to perform the exercise without help. Adults should aim for muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week. Before you begin any new exercise program, though, consult with your doctor.
You don’t have to restrict muscle strengthening exercises to the gym. Yoga, gardening that involves digging or shoveling, and pushups on your bedroom floor all count. As long as the exercises involve all of your muscle areas at some point, they count. Using resistance bands (standing on a band and doing curls) and your own body weight (pull ups) are both excellent ways to work your muscles.
Older adults should get the same amount of muscle strengthening but with special attention paid to changes in balance and endurance. Some of the exercises may be completed while seated or holding on to a chair. Those new to strength training should work with their doctor to develop a safe, comprehensive plan that includes aerobic exercise and muscle strengthening.
Muscle strengthening with chronic conditions
Muscle strengthening is also an important part of health for adults with disabilities or chronic conditions.
A study in 2003 found that many symptoms of pain and weakness decreased significantly after exercising two times a week, and another study in 2007 found that those people suffering from arthritis had a higher quality of life if they exercised the recommended 150 minutes a week. Any muscle strengthening exercises can also be completed while seated or holding on to a chair.
Children should also incorporate muscle strengthening activity at least three days a week. The best way to do this is through their regular play, adding games that use lunges, pull ups, or sit ups. Have them learn these exercises without resistance bands at first. The goal is not to become a bodybuilder but to help build strong, correct muscle groups and support bone density. Don’t skip the stretching and warming up, and remind kids to hydrate throughout the exercise.
Get started with exercise
It is important to note that you need not exercise in hour-long blocks to get the benefits or meet the guidelines. Brief, ten-minute muscle strengthening activities such as push ups at the office or lunges in the elevator help you meet the weekly requirements and are just as effective as a class at the gym. Add daily walks with your dog or significant other. It’s easy to incorporate these activities into your daily routine!