Over the years, it has become common wisdom that exercise is beneficial for our health. But the domain of physical activity is so broad and varied that it is hard to decide how much effort to exert, and what to engage with. For this reason, we will try to provide a simple answer on what is the optimal amount of exercise. Doing so, we have to discern between moderate activity and vigorous activity, as well as strength training and aerobic exercise, all the while keeping track of daily and weekly goals. So let’s take a look at the official recommendations for physical activity, and start our quest for setting up one of the most important habits.
Exercise has a dual effect which is easily observed. The first we feel after a single workout session, while the second emerges gradually, over the course of days and weeks. The first has to do with cardiovascular, respiratory, and hormonal changes taking place during physical exertion, and the second comes as a result of better insulin regulation, weight loss, improved blood pressure and neurological balance.
But what is the optimal amount of exercise, and how do we measure the activity?
The optimal amount of exercise per week – guidelines
One way of measuring exercise is by coming up with a grand total for the week. According to the NHS in UK, and the CDC is US, any activity is better than leading a completely sedentary lifestyle. However, when it comes to guidelines, both agencies set them at 150 minutes of moderate activity per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week.
Additionally, the NHS and CDC recommend two weekly sessions of strength training, defined as anything that strengthens the large muscle groups of the body. For the sake of clarification, this includes both weight lifting as well as bodyweight exercises.
So, let me state this one more time. The recommended guidelines for physical exercise are:
- 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week
- 2 strength training sessions per week
But what counts and moderate activity and what counts as vigorous activity?
Types of physical exercise and duration
Moderate activity is anything from brisk walking to swimming, whereas vigorous activity includes most types of sports, running, and structured fitness routines.
Of course, you can mix these up, walking around the block on Monday, doing a light jog on Tuesday, and playing a single one-on-one basketball match on a Saturday.
However, the health agencies recommend that you keep active throughout the week. So, instead of doing a single cross-fit class on Friday, and enjoying your sedentary lifestyle for the rest of the week, it is much better to divide your physical activity in small manageable chunks. Even five-minute intervals of brisk walking are better than being stationary for the entire day.
Regardless of the effort, it adds up.
But what is the optimal amount of exercise?
Since the guidelines are meant to represent the minimum amount of exercise per week, it stands to reason that there might be another threshold for measuring the optimal amount of exercise.
So, since we already know that keeping active throughout the week is better than doing your fitness in bulk, we can extrapolate the first rule:
Twenty to thirty minutes of daily exercise is just about enough to meet your goals and then some. If you engage in vigorous physical activity on a daily basis, 30 minutes is more than enough, provided that you also fit in your two strength training sessions.
One longitudinal study has observed the effects of exercise on overall mortality, only to conclude that there is a dose-response relationship. This means that the more active you are, the lower the risk of dying. Observing 661,137 people with a follow-up time of 14.2 years, the authors of the study have concluded that even people who struggle to meet the weekly recommended threshold for physical activity have a 20% lower mortality risk than those who are not active at all. The risk lowers to 30% as you meet or exceed the recommended minimum by up to two times. It lowers even further (37%) at 2-3 times the recommended minimum.
So, the more you exercise, the lower the risk.
However, it is important to note that the effects of too much sitting, i.e. leading a sedentary lifestyle, are better mitigated with frequent daily activities. So in order to lower your risk further, aim for breaking up sedentary streaks with at least 5-minute walks, or a simple lower body stretch.
Weight lifting or bodyweight exercises?
If you are incorporating aerobic exercises in your weekly schedule, then weight lifting is a much better supplement to an overall fitness routine. It improves bone health, and provides you with more opportunity to work on your strength, as you can up the ante rather quick.
To follow the recommended guidelines, simply perform 12-15 repetitions of a single exercise, with enough weight to tire your muscles. Then, after one or several minutes of rest, move on to the next muscle group and repeat the process.
Weight lifting is very efficient as you can work on your entire body with a handful of moves – one set on the bench press, the weighted squat, the deadlift, and the pull up are just about enough to reach your weekly target. Perform these on two separate days, and you have your goals met.
Considering the guidelines discussed above, and the results from the longitudinal study, it is best to engage in moderate physical activity for no less than 150 minutes per week, while also completing two strength training activities performed several days apart. Even better is to engage with a workout program that makes you exercise both moderately and vigorously for up to 45 minutes per day. However, if you have to compromise, feel free to settle for less, but make sure to break sedentary streaks with short walks and simple stretching exercises, at least several times per day. You may not lose weight as you might with vigorous exercise, but you will keep your circulation up, and maintain homeostasis for the better part of the day.