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