How much you ask? Well, it depends on your health and objectives.
“How much exercise is enough for what?” asks David Bassett Jr., Ph.D., a professor of exercise physiology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He explains that, prior to your decision making about how much workout you need, you must have a solid idea of your exercise goal(s): Are you exercising for physical fitness, weight control, or for keeping your stress levels reduced? Once you have this question answered, you may go to the next level.
For general health benefits, a routine of daily walking may be enough, 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 precise — for example, to reduce your blood pressure, develop your cardiovascular fitness, or lose weight — you’ll necessitate either more regular exercise or a higher intensity of exercise.
“The medical literature proceeds supporting the idea that exercise is medicine,” says Jeffrey E. Oken, MD, deputy chief of staff at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Hines, Illinois. “Regular exercise can help lower risk of premature death, regulate your blood pressure, lessen the risk of type 2 diabetes, fight obesity, improve your lung function, and assist in treating depression.”
Next, experts break down specifically how much exercise is sufficient, on the grounds of your personal health and fitness goals.
Current Physical Fitness Guidelines for Adults and Kids
According to guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), for general health adults should aim for 150 to 300 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity each week. When repeated regularly, aerobic activity improves cardiorespiratory fitness. Running, brisk walking, swimming, and cycling are all forms of aerobic activity.
Additionally, HHS encourages balance and stretching activities to enhance flexibility, as well as muscle-strengthening workouts two or more times a week. Older adults should focus more on balance exercises — like tai chi, which has been shown to improve stability and decrease fracture risk in older adults, according to a 2013 review published in December 2013 in the European Journal of Integrative Medicine — and continue to do as much aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities as their bodies can handle.
The most recent version of the HHS physical activity guidelines (which were updated in 2018) eliminated the longstanding recommendation that exercise had to last at least 10 minutes to be counted toward your weekly requirement. According to the current guidelines, any increment of physical activity can be counted toward your weekly goal.
“This may stem from the concern that if people can’t do 10 minutes, they may get discouraged and do nothing,” says Neal Pire, CSCS, an exercise physiologist and the national director of wellness services at Castle Connolly Private Health Partners in New York City. According to HHS, nearly 80 percent of adults are not meeting those minimum aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise benchmarks.
“Any time or form of exercise is better than none, whether it’s 1, 5, or 30 minutes,” Pire says.
The HHS encourages more playtime for preschool-aged children to enhance growth and development. This includes a mix of unstructured and active play, like biking, jumping, or swimming.
Children and adolescents between the ages of 6 and 17 should do one hour of moderate or vigorous physical activity a day. The majority of those 60 minutes should be spent doing aerobic activity — that which involves repetitive use of the large muscles, getting heart rate and breathing up.
According to the guidelines, children and adolescents should do muscle-strengthening and bone-strengthening activities, like jumping or exercises that use body weight for resistance, three times per week.
Another important part of the HHS physical activity guidelines for all adults is a warning about the health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle. The guidelines recommend adults should move more and sit less throughout the day, though specific limits to sitting time are not specified.
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 August 2012 in the journal Obesity, women who both dieted and exercised lost more weight than those who only dieted.
Still, if you’re trying to control your weight through exercise, the general HHS activity guidelines 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). So how much exercise do you need in a day? That equates to about one hour, five days per week.
The government suggests that those looking to lose a substantial amount of weight, or more than 5 percent of their body weight, should do more than 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week to reach their goals.
If you increase your intensity, you can reap similar weight-control benefits in about one-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.
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 2014 in theJournal 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).
Though the ACSM recommends performing more than 250 minutes of exercise per week to prevent weight regain, the HHS says it varies: Some need more physical activity than others to maintain healthy body weight, to lose weight, or to keep weight off once it has been lost.
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.
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 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week or at least 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week. 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.
The AHA recommends performing strengthening activities at least two days per week to help preserve and build lean muscle.
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.