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How much exercise do you need?

How much exercise do you need? Ask the U.S. Surgeon General, the Institute of Medicine, the American Heart Association, and the American College of Sports Medicine, and you’re likely to get four different answers. But don’t let that turn you off. In fact, you’re the only one who can decide just how much exercise is best for you.

Why exercise?

People exercise for one of five reasons: for work, for health, for recreation, for competition, or for their appearance.

The amount of exercise you need depends on your reasons for exercising, on your starting point, and on how quickly you want to achieve your goals. And the type of exercise you choose depends on your personal abilities and preferences, on your schedule, and on the facilities at your disposal.

Exercise for work

For better or worse, not many 21st century Americans fill their exercise quotas in the workplace. We’ve replaced hoes with tractors, brooms with vacuums, and stairs with escalators. Freed from physical work, people have used mental work to create a society of enormous convenience and comfort. In the process, though, we’ve created a shortage of the physical activity the human body needs to ward off disease and reach its full potential.

Exercise for health

Exercise is the best-kept secret in preventive medicine. Despite our other differences, we all need to exercise for health. Regular exercise provides essential protection against many of the diseases that plague our country. The list includes:

  • heart attack
  • stroke
  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • obesity
  • osteoporosis and fractures
  • depression
  • colon and breast cancers
  • dementia (memory loss).

There are three common misconceptions about exercise and health. One is that the health benefits of exercise come from losing weight, and that if you exercise a lot and don’t lose weight then there’s no point in exercising. That is false. Regular exercise, as described just below, greatly improves your health even if it doesn’t cause you to lose weight.

A second misconception is that you need to exercise for at least 30–60 consecutive minutes to get any health benefit. That also is false. You can get all the health benefits you need from moderate exercise done in little chunks — 10 minutes now, 15 more minutes a few hours from now, 15 more later — as long as it adds up to enough total activity.

The third misconception is that health benefits come only from high-intensity exercise that makes you huff and puff and sweat. It doesn’t. We coined the term “cardiometabolic exercise” (CME) to encompass a range of activities, from climbing the stairs in your office building to pushing yourself on an elliptical. All these things will improve your heart, your metabolism, and your health. The key is to do enough and to do it often enough. For health, doctors should “prescribe” at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise or 15 minutes of intense exercise a day. Aim to get at least 150 CME points a day.

Cardiometabolic exercise points for selected activities

Activity

Pace

Duration

CME points

Daily activities

Carpentry

Moderate

30 minutes

100

Mowing lawn

Pushing hand mower

30 minutes

200

Pushing power mower

30 minutes

145

Raking lawn

Moderate

30 minutes

130

Sexual activity

Conventional, familiar partner

15 minutes

25

Stair climbing

Moderate, up stairs

10 minutes

100

Moderate, down stairs

10 minutes

30

Washing car by hand

Moderate

30 minutes

100

Recreational activities

Aerobic dance

Moderate

30 minutes

200

Biking

Moderate

30 minutes

250

Calisthenics

Moderate

30 minutes

130

Golfing

Pulling clubs

30 minutes

145

Jogging

12 minutes/mile

30 minutes

200

Jumping rope

Moderate

15 minutes

200

Skiing

Downhill or water

30 minutes

200

Cross-country

30 minutes

315

Swimming

Moderate

30 minutes

230

Tennis

Doubles

30 minutes

160

Singles

30 minutes

200

Walking

Moderate

30 minutes

135

Yoga (Hatha)

Moderate

30 minutes

130

Excerpted from The No Sweat Exercise Plan: Lose Weight, Get Healthy, and Live Longer. A Harvard Medical School Book by Harvey B. Simon, M.D. (McGraw-Hill, 2006).

Exercise for recreation

No need for a point system, clock, or calendar here. If you’re exercising for the fun of it, just go for it — as long as you meet your minimum needs for health.
Exercise is a great way to dissipate stress and lift your spirits. If you feel "too busy to exercise," consider using exercise to refresh your mind and relieve stress.

Exercise for competition

Here’s where aerobic training comes in. To stay well, exercise for health fitness. To hit your peak for road running, racquet sports, basketball, biking, or any other competitive sport, work out for aerobic fitness. That means boosting your heart rate to 70% to 85% of its maximum and holding it there for 20 to 60 minutes. You’ll also benefit from stretching, strength training, and if you’re really going for it, interval training, or speed drills.

Exercise for appearance’s sake

Weight loss is the most common goal. You can get there with the moderate exercise you need for health — but for faster, more impressive weight loss, double your goal to 300 CME points, or about an hour of moderate exercise a day. It sounds like a lot, but remember that you can break it into chunks.

Exercising your options

So how much exercise do you need?

Just enough to meet your goals. Make health your priority, and remember to get a check-up before you start a big new exercise push.

January 2010 update

Create an exercise or fitness plan you can live with
Click to enlarge

Exercise: A Program You Can Live With

Not sure how to start an exercise regimen? Exercise: A Program You Can Live With will help guide you through starting and maintaining an exercise program that suits your abilities and lifestyle. You’ll find answers to your questions on how much and what kind of physical activity you need, as well as advice on fitness products currently in the marketplace. Read more

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