The Right Amount Of Daily Exercise - For Every Fitness Level

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Zero exercise is not enough. Going for a walk every day is probably a good thing. And if you're training for a marathon, you'll be on your feet for a couple hours of hard workouts every week. But what is the benchmark for a human being just trying to squeeze enough healthy exercise into their life? Let's break it down.

Fortunately, all the major public health bodies (including the World Health Organisation) are in agreement when it comes to the following guidelines for aerobic exercise:

  • 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise like walking, ideally broken up into 30 minutes per day over five days
  • 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise like running, ideally in three 25-minute chunks
  • It only counts if you do 10 minutes or more in each session, and you should spread your sessions throughout the week (so, you can't take a single 90-minute spinning class and figure you're done.)

If you're a stroll-around-the-neighbourhood person, go with the first recommendation. If you enjoy hard workouts, but would rather not change into your gym clothes every day, you can just go with the 75 minute recommendation. And feel free to mix and match. Here are some possibilities:

  • Walk 15 minutes to and from work every week day (5 x 30 minutes = 150 moderate)
  • Go running on Monday/Wednesday/Friday, each for 2-3 miles (3 x 25 minutes = 75 vigorous)
  • Take a 90-minute heart-pounding cycling class, and go for a walk after dinner at least a few other days of the week (1 x 90 minutes = 90 vigorous, plus perhaps 3 x 15 = 45 moderate)
  • Go for a 30-minute easy bike ride on Monday. Try a 45-minute water aerobics class on Wednesday. Take a short hike on Saturday. Mow the lawn for an hour on Saturday. (30 + 45 + 30 + 60 = 165 moderate)

If you're confused about what counts in each category, the UK's National Health Service has a list of "moderate" and "vigorous" activities here.

If you're pretty athletic, the above won't sound like much. Good news! The World Health Organisation has set a secondary goal for people like you. It's simple: just do double the above. So you can aim for 150 minutes per week of vigorous activity:

  • Two of those killer 90-minute classes, Monday and Thursday
  • A 4-5km run every weekday
  • An hour-long martial arts class three times a week

...or, to meet the requirement with moderate activity, you can stroll for an hour before breakfast each day, the favourite activity of spunky grandmas and grandpas who will probably never die. (To be fair, the recommendations we're talking about are for people up to age 65.)

So, what about an upper limit? There isn't one, from a public health point of view. More is better. (And even if you are doing less than the recommendations, anything is better than nothing.)

That said, it is possible for you as an individual to do more exercise than your body is ready for. Don't jump from a life of occasional strolling to a marathon training plan. And if you are on that marathon training plan and you're feeling worn down, take a break already.

Strength, Flexibility, and More

So far we've been talking about aerobic exercise, which is the kind where you're continuously moving (or, perhaps, doing quick work/rest intervals) and your heart rate is up. But there are other important forms of exercise, too. The WHO and other organisations recommend two days per week of "high intensity muscle strengthening activity," which includes anything where you're thinking in terms of sets and reps. (Three sets of eight to 10 reps is a good structure to start.)

That activity can be anything that challenges your muscles, and where the 10th rep is a lot harder than the first: lifting weights, or resistance band exercises, or bodyweight exercises like push-ups. So if you run three days per week but have time for more, don't just fit in extra runs; try adding two days in the weight room instead.

In addition, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends two other kinds of exercise you might otherwise forget:

  • Two to three days per week that include stretching, ideally spending 60 seconds stretching each major muscle group. This can be in a few short stints of 10-30 seconds each.
  • Two to three days per week that include neuromuscular training. Think of this as hand-eye coordination and its full-body equivalents. Anything involving balance, coordination, or paying attention to your gait fall into these categories.

Both of these can fit into your other workouts. Stretching works well in a cool-down session after your main workout, or some people prefer to put it into a warm-up. If you're doing functional movements like lunges that challenge your balance and coordination, you're working on neuromuscular fitness.


Comments

    As luck would have it, I have a 15 minute walk to and from work, so naturally fit into that 150 minute moderate cycle. Add in a ~20 minute walk at lunch, and it starts getting up to pretty reasonable levels.

    Because of that, when a doctor tells me I need to exercise more (I'm diabetic, so its a standard excuse they throw out), I just pull out my watch or phone and show them what I do each day, and they quickly move on to other things.

    But something as basic as walking to work, and adding in something at lunch helps a surprising amount. Waist has gone down several inches, with my belt showing those results, and I look healthier than I have in decades.

    Can still lose more, but at least something reasonable is in sight with nothing more than walking to work.

      If all you're doing is walking around, your doctor is probably correct; you need more exercise. Our bodies require vigorous exercise; like the article suggests, aim for 75 minutes per week.

    Seriously, with busy lives, long daily commutes, and maybe children, how does anyone find time for this among all the other things that need to be done? I feel exhausted by the time I get home from work in the evening. Also, aren't days between weights sessions meant to be rest days? This seems to be saying you should be doing moderate/vigorous activity on those days rather than resting.

      Over the years, I have found that the end of the day is the hardest time to exercise, unless I am going to team training. Otherwise, it's got to be first thing (even before I'm awake), otherwise it probably won't happen that day.

      I catch the train to work and walk the 15 minutes from the train station to work (and back in the arvo) 5 days a week. its not hard to squeeze in a 15 minute walk here and there no matter how busy you are.

      The 15 minute walk to work is roughly a mile for me, with the walk to and from adding up to 30 minutes. That's about 4000 steps for the combined to and from work.

      I'm not a professional so take this with a grain of salt, but something I saw years ago said that walking a mile and running a mile burns the same amount of energy, you just cover that distance faster when running, so I don't think its even about the intensity as it is about just getting it done. And I know how counter-intuitive that sounds.

      If your phone has a pedometer built in though (and if not, get one), use that for a week or two and see what you're doing now, and adjust to add a little on top. I'm not an active person by any stretch of the imagination, but I was surprised at how easy it had been to do what I needed.

      7000 steps is a quiet day just with the walk to and from work, and going out to get lunch.

    30 minutes of walking a day is NOT moderate exercise... the bar is being set way to low in this age of obesity.

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