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How Much Exercise Do You Really Need?

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Zero exercise simply isn’t sufficient. Making a daily walk a habit is a positive step, and for those training for a marathon, rigorous workouts consuming several hours each week are par for the course. But what constitutes a reasonable amount of healthy exercise for the average person simply trying to incorporate fitness into their routine? Let’s delve into it.

The Standard: 150 Minutes of Cardio and Two Days of Strength Training Weekly

Thankfully, major public health bodies are in alignment on this issue. The World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the American Heart Association (AHA) all advocate the following aerobic exercise guidelines:

  • Aim for a minimum of 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity cardio exercise like walking or easy jogging, or 75 minutes weekly of vigorous exercise such as running, or a combination of both. (If you exceed this, even better.)
  • Include at least two days per week of muscle-strengthening activities, such as weightlifting, pushups, resistance band exercises, or engaging in physically demanding tasks like shoveling.

The previous recommendation stated that cardio sessions needed to last at least 10 minutes to be beneficial, but the current advice encourages getting exercise whenever possible, even if it’s in shorter bursts.

Understanding “Moderate” and “Vigorous” Cardio

Moderate cardio entails sustained activity without excessive fatigue, where you can comfortably converse. Vigorous cardio, in contrast, pushes you to your limits, leaving you breathless and exhausted. If you monitor your heart rate during exercise, moderate cardio typically corresponds to zone 2, while vigorous cardio is more intense.

Examples of moderate cardio include brisk walking, easy jogging, biking on flat terrain, or using cardio machines like ellipticals at a steady pace. Vigorous cardio comprises activities like fast running, uphill biking, intense Crossfit workouts, swimming laps, or playing sports like soccer or basketball.

Combining Moderate and Vigorous Cardio

You can mix moderate and vigorous cardio to meet the 150-minute weekly target. Considering every minute of vigorous exercise counts double, here are a few examples:

  • A brisk 20-minute walk five days a week (100 minutes moderate cardio) plus a challenging 30-minute spin class (60 minutes, doubled to 120 minutes) totals 220 minutes.
  • Hiking for an hour thrice weekly (180 minutes moderate cardio).
  • Three 30-minute jogs (90 minutes moderate cardio) combined with a 40-minute workout comprising a 10-minute jog warm-up, 20 minutes of intense running, and a 10-minute cooldown (40 minutes, doubled to 80 minutes moderate cardio), summing up to 170 minutes.

If the Standard Is Too Easy: Leveling Up to 300 Minutes

For those more athletically inclined, doubling the standard recommendation is an option. Here’s what that looks like:

  • Three intense, hour-long martial arts sessions weekly (180 minutes, doubled to 360 minutes).
  • Running 30 miles weekly at a comfortable pace (300 minutes).
  • Commuting for 20 minutes each way five days a week (200 minutes) and playing two recreational soccer matches (each lasting 50 minutes), totaling 400 minutes.

Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Exercise?

From a public health perspective, there’s no upper limit on exercise—more is generally better. However, individuals can exceed their body’s limits. Gradual progression is key; jumping from occasional strolls to intense marathon training isn’t advisable. If you’re feeling worn out, it’s essential to rest.

Strength, Flexibility, and More

Aerobic exercise aside, muscle-strengthening activities are crucial. The WHO recommends two days weekly of high-intensity muscle-strengthening exercises, like weightlifting or bodyweight exercises such as push-ups. Each session should focus on different muscle groups, ensuring overall fitness and strength.