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How Much Exercise Do You Need to Stay Healthy?

April 7, 2022
Reaping the health benefits of physical activity and exercise may take less time than you think.
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By Susie Reiner, PhD, CSCS, EP-C

The benefits of exercise are irrefutable, from improving cardiovascular and metabolic health, boosting mood and cognition, to even adding years to your life.

In fact, research shows people who are physically inactive risk a 20- to 30-percent higher rate of premature death compared to those who make physical activity a habit. 

Searching “physical activity” yields over five billion internet results, which can make finding reliable information about a workout plan overwhelming. For definitive answers, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides the expert-curated, research-driven Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

Based on these science-backed guidelines, here’s the breakdown of exactly how much exercise you need to boost your health and longevity, and strategies to fit physical activity seamlessly into your daily life.

What are the Physical Activity Guidelines? 

A balanced program includes aerobic (cardio) and resistance (strength) exercise. For cardio, the HHS suggests at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week. This can include anything from brisk walking, jogging, biking, swimming, or sport activities that get your heart beating faster.

To understand how intense moderate or vigorous exercise actually is, you can track your heart rate during a workout with these tips and hover around 50 to 70 percent of your heart rate reserve (a number that takes into account your individual resting heart rate) for moderate-intensity, or edge up to 70 to 85 percent for vigorous-intensity workouts. You can also gauge your intensity by how you feel, using a scale called rate of perceived exertion (RPE). On a scale of 1 to 10, if the activity feels like a 4 to 6 and you can still hold a conversation with some effort, you’re in a moderate zone. Higher intensities will get closer to 6 to 8, where you’ll feel breathless, and chit chat is no longer an option.

Visual of current guidelines for physical activity for US Adults

Resistance training plays an important role in health-promoting benefits of physical activity. The HHS recommends muscle-strengthening activities for all the major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders, and arms) at least twice per week. This translates to each workout including at least one set of 8 to 12 reps of an exercise (with 2 to 3 sets being more effective) per muscle group at a weight that feels hard by the last rep. You can use a variety of strength training methods like body weight, machines, bands, or free weights and progressively challenge yourself as you get stronger.

What Should I Include in My Exercise Program? 

The good news: you can move your way. There are endless ways to participate in moderate and vigorous physical activity, so you have the freedom to choose activities you enjoy whether it be gardening, walking your dog, or playing a sport or game. When you find an activity inherently rewarding, it boosts your intrinsic motivation–which research shows is associated with long-term exercise adoption. Consider adding something new to your rotation because nothing beats a fun workout, mastering new skills, or adding variety to your routine for added motivation. And it may actually increase your total physical activity levels throughout the week. 

When you’re thinking about switching it up, you may consider incorporating an activity that rounds your holistic fitness.

The health-related basic components of fitness include:

  • Cardiovascular endurance: Meeting the aerobic physical activity guidelines satisfies this component. If you’re already meeting the recommendations, there are even greater health benefits with higher levels of cardio. 
  • Muscular endurance: You can add variety to your strength training by including some sets that challenge your endurance with lower weight but higher repetitions. 
  • Muscular strength: Alternatively, you can include more challenging reps with higher weight and less reps. Muscular strength is working closer to your max strength.
  • Flexibility: Referring to the range of motion around a joint, regularly including flexibility can keep you feeling spry so everyday movements feel easier.
  • Body Composition: Maintaining a healthy body composition (lean muscle mass versus body fat) through exercise and nutrition reduces your risk of chronic cardiovascular and metabolic conditions. 

While it’s normal to gravitate towards certain components based on your interests, following this blueprint can help ensure you maximize your health benefits. 

Your physical activity should complement your schedule, not derail your life. Forcing yourself to wake up at 4am when you’re not a morning person or scheduling an evening gym session when you know you have draining after-work obligations makes exercise a dreaded chore. Just like your workout is specific to your preferences, when you work out should be too–and you won’t miss out on any perks. Studies show that breaking your workouts into short bouts or even being a weekend warrior (fitting all your exercise into days off) is just as effective as longer sessions throughout the week to reap the health benefits of physical activity. 

The Bottom Line:

Aim for at least 150 to 300 minutes of aerobic exercise and at least two strength workouts per week. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to exercise; choose activities you enjoy, do them when it fits your lifestyle, and add variety where you can. Don’t sweat it if you fall short of the guidelines, any activity is better than none and your body will thank you for it.