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Truth Talk: How Long Do You Really Need to Exercise for Better Health?

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Couple Exercising How long you need to exercise to reap the health benefits — decrease in disease and death risk — isn’t as much of an absolute as one may think.

Thanks to a recent pair of studies published in JAMA Internal Medicine—one that examine the amount of exercise we should do and the other that took a look at how hard or the intensity of that exercise—might put the debate to rest. The results might surprise you.

How Long We Should Exercise

Current guidelines suggest that 150 minutes of moderate exercise (think: breathy conversation during) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (think: difficulty speaking while doing) per week for health. But is it the minimum someone should do? Or even the maximal amount?

In the first study, data regarding the exercise habits of more than 661,000 middle-aged adults participating in the six National Cancer Institute Consortium studies was pooled. When the researchers looked at weekly exercise habits and compared 14 years’ worth of the group’s death records, they found some unsurprising information—those who didn’t exercise at all had the highest risk of early death and those who met the exercise guidelines were 31 percent less likely than the non-exercisers to die early, and some enlightening information—those who exercised a little bit lowered their early death risk by 20 percent compared to the non-exercisers. Thus, proving that even a little bit can make a difference.

When it came to finding the amount of time that delivered the most protection, so to speak, against early death, it turns out that exercising 450 minutes per week or just a little more than an hour per day lessened risk 39 percent compared to non-exercisers. And most of the participants who fell into this category walked, so we aren’t talking difficult gym workouts here. Nonetheless, most people find it difficult to fit this much exercise into their week, and when you compare the risk reduction to that of someone exercising for only 150 minutes per week, there is still benefit to moving.

How Hard We Should Exercise

It’s hard to talk about exercise without talking intensity, since there are cardiovascular benefits linked to how hard you work out. The more you huff and puff the stronger your heart and lungs become. But does that mean you need to engage in the latest killer workout to get any benefit? That’s what the second study out of Australia figured out.

After looking at the health data of more than 200,00 Aussie adults to determine how much time each person exercised and how much of that exercise was either vigorous—think running—or moderate—think walking, they also found that meeting the exercise guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate exercise reduced the risk of early death. But here is the kicker: if someone engaged in an occasional bout of vigorous exercise, say 30 percent of their weekly exercise time, he or she lower their risk of early death 9 percent compared to those who always exercised at a moderate intensity.

What does that mean for you? It means if you can spend up to 20 to 30 minutes per week or about 5 minutes per day doing vigorous activities, such as jumping rope, running, playing singles tennis, doing sprints while swimming or biking, you’ll lower your risk of early death.


Carey Rossi is a writer and editor with 10 years of experience covering all aspects of nutrition and fitness. She was the editor-in-chief of Better Nutrition, a shopping magazine for natural living, and the founding editor of Muscle & Fitness Hers. In addition, her work has appeared in Muscle & Fitness, Looking Good Now, Healthy Family, Vegetarian Times and Natural Health. She is the author of No More Diets Ever, Lose Weight the Natural Way.


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