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How much exercise is enough? Short answer: It depends.

By Barbara Robb
Medically Reviewed by Samuel Mackenzie, MD, PhD

“How much exercise is enough for what?” asks David Bassett Jr., PhD, a professor of exercise physiology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He explains that, before you make a decision on how much you need, you should have a good idea of your exercise goal or goals: Are you exercising for physical fitness, weight control, or as a way of keeping your stress levels low?

For general health benefits, a routine of daily walking may be sufficient, says Susan Joy, MD, co-director of the Kaiser Permanente Sports Medicine Center in Sacramento and team physician for the Sacramento Kings.

If your goal is more specific — say, to lower your blood pressure, improve your cardiovascular fitness, or lose weight — you’ll need either more frequent exercise or a higher intensity of exercise.

“The medical literature continues to support the idea that exercise is medicine,” says Jeffrey E. Oken, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician with the Marianjoy Medical Group in Wheaton, Illinois. “Regular exercise can help lower risk of premature death, control your blood pressure, reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, combat obesity, improve your lung function, and help treat depression.”

Here, experts break down exactly how much exercise is enough, on the basis of your personal health and fitness goals.

Current Physical Fitness Guidelines for All Adults

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), everyone needs two types of physical activity each week: aerobics and muscle-strengthening activities. (1)

Aerobic activity involves repetitive use of the large muscles to temporarily increase heart rate and respiration. When repeated regularly, aerobic activity improves cardio-respiratory fitness. Running, brisk walking, swimming, and cycling are all forms of aerobic activity.

Muscle-strengthening activities are designed to work one or more muscle groups. All the major muscle groups — legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms — should be worked on two or more days each week, according to federal guidelines. Lifting weights, working with resistance bands, and doing pushups are all are forms of muscle-strengthening activities, according to the CDC.

Adults need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week, in addition to muscle-strengthening activities. If activity is more vigorous in intensity, 75 minutes a week may be enough. For even greater health benefits, though, more activity is better: 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, or a mix of the two, says the CDC.

It’s best to be active throughout the week, rather than concentrating all your physical activity in one day. That means aim for 30 to 60 minutes of exercise, five days a week. You can break it up into even smaller chunks, too: three brief periods of physical activity a day, for example. In order for it to be effective in improving health and fitness, the CDC says you need to sustain the activity for at least 10 minutes at a time.

How Much Exercise Do You Need to Lose Weight or Maintain Weight Loss?

Research consistently shows that, to lose weight, integrating exercise into your routine helps. For example, in one study published in the journal Obesity, women who both dieted and exercised lost more weight than those who only dieted. (2)

If you’re trying to control your weight through exercise, however, the general activity guidelines provided by the CDC might not be sufficient; you’re likely going to need to devote some extra time to exercise.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), 150 to 250 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity yields only modest weight-loss results, and to lose a significant amount of weight, you may need to perform moderate-intensity exercise more than 250 minutes per week (in addition to dietary intervention). (3) So how much exercise do you need in a day? That equates to about one hour, five days per week.

Meanwhile, the CDC suggests that, if you increase your intensity, you can reap similar weight-control benefits in about half the time. For example, in one study published in January 2017 in the Journal of Diabetes Research, women who performed high-intensity interval exercise lost the same amount of weight and body fat compared with those who performed moderate-intensity cardio, but they did it while exercising for significantly less time. (4)

It’s important to remember that once you hit your weight-loss goals, you need to continue exercising to make sure you don’t regain the weight. A study published in August 2015 in the Journal of Primary Prevention that analyzed data from 81 studies investigating the role of exercise in weight management found that one of the biggest ways exercise helps with weight management is by preventing weight gain (perhaps even more than it helps you lose weight). (5)

The ACSM recommends performing more than 250 minutes of exercise per week to prevent weight regain.

To both lose weight and prevent weight regain, the ACSM recommends performing strength-training exercises to increase the body’s levels of fat-free mass, which improves metabolic rate. That’s why, when Harvard researchers followed 10,500 men over the course of 12 years, those who performed 20 minutes of strength training per day gained less abdominal fat compared with those who spent the same amount of time performing cardiovascular exercise, according to data published in the February 2015 issue of the journal Obesity. (6)

How Much Exercise Do You Need to Improve Cardiovascular Health?

Fortunately for anyone trying to improve their heart health, a little bit of exercise goes a long way.

For overall cardiovascular health, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends performing at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least five days per week or at least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least three days per week. (7) Other research shows that aerobic exercise is the most efficient form of exercise for improving measures of cardiometabolic health, including insulin sensitivity, glucose tolerance, and blood pressure. (8)

AHA recommends performing strengthening activities at least two days per week to help preserve and build lean muscle.

However, if you are actively trying to lower your blood pressure or cholesterol levels, the AHA advises upping your exercise time and intensity to an average of 40 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-cardiovascular activity three to four times per week. Before engaging in high-intensity exercise, especially if you have a history of heart issues, it’s important to talk to your doctor about what intensity of exercise is safe for you, Dr. Oken says.

And, again, remember that it’s okay to work up to your target exercise levels. No matter what your goals are, some exercise is always going to be more beneficial than none. Small steps sometimes lead to the biggest gains.

Additional reporting by K. Aleisha Fetters

How knowledgeable are you about fitness and exercise? Learn the definitions of fitness terms.

By Barbara Robb
Medically Reviewed by Cynthia Haines, MD

If you’re going to walk the walk of regular workouts, you also need to talk the talk. Get started by becoming familiar with some of the basic terms of fitness and exercise.

Aerobic. Involving repetitive use of the large muscles, temporarily increasing heart rate and respiration.

Balance. The ability to maintain bodily equilibrium while standing still or moving.

Balance training. Activities designed to improve challenges to balance.

Baseline activity. Activities of daily life, such as standing and walking slowly.

Body composition. The proportion of lean mass (composed of muscle, bone, vital tissue and organs) and fat in the body.

Bone-strengthening activity. Physical activities that involve impact or tension on the bones, promoting bone growth and strength. Lifting weights, running, and jumping rope are examples.

Cardio-respiratory endurance. The ability to deliver oxygen and nutrients to tissues over a sustained period of time.

Duration. How long it takes for an activity or exercise to be performed.

Exercise. Repetitive physical activity performed in order to improve or maintain physical fitness or health.

Flexibility. The range of motion possible at a joint, or the ability to use joints and muscles through their full range of motion.

Flexibility exercise. Exercise designed to improve the ability of a joint to move through a full range of motion.

Intensity. The amount of effort required for an activity or exercise.

Interval training. An exercise regimen in which intervals of vigorous activity alternate with less vigorous intervals of recovery.

Isometric exercise. Contraction of muscle without shortening of the muscle, as when pushing against an immovable object.

Lifestyle activities. Activities performed regularly in daily life, such as climbing stairs or walking.

MET. The abbreviation for metabolic equivalent. Metabolic equivalent is a unit of energy expenditure, or metabolic cost, of physical activity. One MET is the rate of energy expenditure while sitting at rest.

Moderate-intensity physical activity. Physical activity that increases heart rate and respiration, while still allowing conversation.

Muscle-strengthening activity. Activity or exercise designed to work one or more muscle groups.

Muscular endurance. The ability of muscles to sustain repeated contractions.

Muscular strength. The ability of a muscle to exert force.

Physical activity. Any movement that increases energy expenditure above a baseline level.

Physical fitness. The ability to perform daily routines without getting overly tired.

Progression. An increase in the intensity, frequency, and/or duration of an activity over a period of time.

Repetitions. In strengthening activities, the number of times a weight is lifted.

Resistance training. Exercise applying resistance to movement, such as using weights or stretch bands.

Strength. The ability of a muscle or muscle group to exert force.

Vigorous-intensity physical activity. Physical activity that increases heart rate and respiration to the point that only a few words can be spoken before pausing to catch one’s breath.

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You know you should exercise more, but that won’t always get you going. Here’s how to devise and stick to an exercise program.

Forty percent of all chronic diseases can be prevented through a healthy lifestyle, which includes eating a healthy diet and working out regularly. Yet Americans have become increasingly obese and sedentary. “People just aren’t making the connection between unhealthy lifestyle choices and disease risk,” says Alice Burron, MS, spokeswoman for the American Council on Exercise and author of Four Weeks to Fabulous. Doctors often try to change people’s attitudes by emphasizing the health benefits of exercise. But a recent study at the University of Missouri, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that telling people why exercising is good for them doesn’t motivate them. People don’t “think” themselves into being more active and working out, the researchers concluded after studying data on close to 100,000 participants.

The researchers, led by Vicki Conn, PhD, RN, FAAN, associate dean for research and Potter-Brinton professor in the MU Sinclair School of Nursing, also concluded that rather than focus on why patients should exercise, health experts should be emphasizing how to exercise. They believe that many people would exercise more and lose weight if they knew how to fit working out into their busy schedules.

Personalizing Your Exercise Goals

Burron says the chance of starting and sticking to an exercise regime increases if people personalize their decisions. “For example,” she says, “if they have a close friend or family member who has suffered from heart disease, stroke, diabetes or cancer, and they resolve to make healthy lifestyle changes to prevent the same fate, success almost always follows.”

Wanting to be a role model for your children or others in your life is another good motivation. “I want to teach my four children how to eat well and stay active for life,” she says. “Also, being in the fitness industry, everyone watches me closely — my weight and what I eat. I have to be a good example so that I am believable and people will follow my lead.”

Here are other ways that you can motivate yourself to lose weight and exercise regularly:

  • Make specific goals. Don’t just say, “I want to lose weight.” Better: “I want to lose 20 pounds in a year.” Your goal needs to have specific timeframes and be something where you can measure your progress, Burron says.
  • Be realistic. Never expect to lose 20 pounds in two weeks or even three. Set goals that are realistic with the effort and commitment that you can give to them, Burron says. Also, make sure you have the resources available to achieve your goals. Don’t choose swimming as your form of exercise if you don’t have access to a pool, or running outdoors when it’s going to be freezing outside for the next few months.
  • Set reminders. Post sticky notes where you will see them, reminding yourself of the benefits of exercise and sticking to your goals.
  • Schedule your workout. Put time for exercising on your calendar, just as you would a doctor’s appointment or work. You can use your phone to set an alarm when it’s time to get moving.
  • Put it in writing. Keep a journal with your goals for the week along with your results. After working out, write down what you did and for how long. When you look at the numbers and see progress, it will encourage you to keep going.
  • Consider the obstacles. Think about what might get in the way of your going for a brisk walk or biking at least three times a week. “Then come up with a plan to overcome these obstacles,” Burron says. For example, if you have small children that you can’t leave and have no one to watch them, buy a good stroller or bike so they can come along. Weather getting you down? Find a fitness center with child care or create a home exercise routine that you can do when the kids are napping or at school.
  • Get a partner. “If you have the tendency to bail from exercise at the last minute, finding a partner who can keep you accountable might be a good strategy,” Burron says.
  • Talk to a trainer. It’s important that your exercise routine be made of activities you like. The more you like them, the more motivated you’ll be to do them. However, you may need a personal trainer to teach you how to properly do the exercises you’ve chosen and set up a routine that you can live with easily.

Making lifestyle changes is similar to remodeling your house, Burron says. “It will go much better if you have a plan.” Even making small increases in your physical activities will be beneficial to your overall health.