What Is the Minimum Amount of Activity Needed to Improve Your Health?

(U.S. Army/Sgt. Angela Parady)

We all want to stay healthy, but we often think we're "too busy" with work and family commitments to fit in the recommended amount of exercise. So how much exercise do you really need?

The good news is that you don't have to spend hours in the gym every week to stay healthy. In fact, even just a few minutes of exercise each day can help you maintain your health. While striving for the minimum standards should not be in a person's long-term goal achievement process, there is evidence concerning what you can do if you have a limited amount of time each day.

Obviously, performance-based fitness goals will be different from health-based fitness goals even though for most people, those goals tend to cross over and result in both better health and physical performance.

Minimum Guidelines

Organizations like the Mayo Clinic and the Department of Health and Human Services follow the guidelines and recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week (20-30 minutes a day 5-7 days a week). The term "moderate-intensity aerobic activity" means walking, biking, hiking, swimming or using various cardio machines found in the gym.

However, even small amounts of exercise can have major health benefits if you cut the above recommendations in half. In fact, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, combined with muscle strengthening activities at least twice a week, can be just as effective as 150 minutes of moderate activity.

You will have to work harder during those 75 minutes, compared to the easier-paced 150 minutes. Research shows that the minimum effective training time per week can significantly reduce your risk of developing many chronic diseases and conditions, like heart disease and diabetes, and can also help improve cognitive function and mental health.

Additionally, regular physical activity can help you perform better on medical screening tests, such as cholesterol and glucose tests. The better your results on those tests, the more likely you will be to prolong your life.

Another Option for Increased Physical Activity

Vigorous Intermittent Lifestyle Physical Activity (VILPA) is characterized by brief bouts of physical activity during your daily life. For many of us with busy lives, VILPA may be more feasible than structured vigorous exercise and is only limited by our imagination.

You can do quick one- to two-minute bursts of intense physical activity, such as sprinting to catch the bus, running up a flight of stairs, bursts of activity while doing housework and adding short runs into your walks. Three or four one-minute bursts of VILPA activity spread throughout the day can reduce risk of premature death by 40%.

This same research also showed the following:

  • Performing just three or four one-minute sessions of VILPA per day can reduce mortality from all causes and cancer by up to 40% and cardiovascular disease deaths by up to 49%.
  • Performing 11 bouts of VILPA per day was associated with a 65% reduction in cardiovascular death risk and 49% reduction in cancer-related death risk, compared to no VILPA.

The problem many people have is keeping track of how much work you are doing on any given day. Most people overestimate by as much as double the amount of work they think they are actually doing. You can check your activity with a pedometer, smartphone health features and apps, or activity checking watches for more accurate amounts of daily physical activity you actually accumulate each day.

For instance, my personal daily physical activity aside from morning workouts (calisthenics and weightlifting) involved walking my dog about two miles (5,000 steps) and walking to our local store that is one mile away. The phone helps with that tracking and enables me to do work, if needed, while I'm walking.

Even for the busy person, there are ways to help you fit some activity into your day. Another study from Nature Medicine compared those who engaged in no VILPA with those who engaged in VILPA three times per day (lasting 1-2  minutes each) showed a 38%-40% reduction in all-cause and cancer mortality risk and a 48%-49% reduction in cardiovascular disease mortality risk. These results indicate that small amounts of vigorous non-exercise physical activity are associated with substantially lower mortality.

It is important to make sure you are getting the recommended amount of exercise each week, whether that is spending 30 minutes at a gym each day or accumulating 10-15 minutes of physical activity each day through living and moving and not just sitting. Don't forget to include muscle-strengthening activities and make sure to get enough sleep each night. Sleep is our body and mind's natural reset button, and a good night's sleep is critical to mitigating daily physical, mental and emotional stress. By following these guidelines, you can help ensure that you stay healthy and perform better on medical screening tests.

-- Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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