What's the Least Amount of Exercise You Can Do and Still Be Healthy?
It’s no secret that exercise does a body good. But between work, your side hustle, and just doin’ you, squeezing in time to sweat is a struggle—so we don't blame you for wondering how much is just enough.
The rule of thumb—suggestions supported by the American Heart Association (AHA), the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), and other health organizations—is this: 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of more intense aerobic exercise (or a combo of both), plus two sessions of total-body strength training per week.
So here's the breakdown: Aerobic (or cardio) exercise is anything that gets your heart pumping harder for at least 10 minutes at a time. If you take the moderate route, that means breaking a sweat with activities like power walking or a relatively chill bike ride, while hard running and swimming laps count as more vigorous exercise.
And while being active every day is better than not (duh), there isn’t a rigid breakdown of how much activity you need to do each day. It's flexible, so you can slice up your cardio time however you’d like, whether that means five 30-minute sessions, three 25-minute HIIT workouts, or any other combination of 10 minutes or more—even packing all your workouts in one or two sessions on the weekends has been shown to boost health. “The goal is to just get the recommended time in,” says Lara Carlson, DPE, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.
Unlike the aerobic guidelines, there’s no set time target for the weekly strength workouts, which can include bodyweight exercises and weight-lifting sets, but these sessions don’t count toward the 150- or 75-minute goals. What matters here is actually putting in the work and recruiting major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms) through a variety of exercises when you do, Carlson says.
These recommendations, which are associated with a lower rate of heart disease and death, are a general concept for strength, flexibility, and cardiopulmonary (heart and lung) health that are important for everyone, according to Jordan Metzl, M.D., a leading sports medicine physician and author of Dr. Jordan Metzl’s Workout Prescription. They’re thought of as the "minimum required dose” that you need to score some exercise-related health benefits.
“Exercise is the most readily available, powerful, and effective medicine across the spectrum of human condition,” Metzl says. And when it comes to living your best life, this medicine is a must—research associates it with a lower risk of 13 types of cancer, plus it keeps your weight in check and can even ramp up creativity. Association of Leisure-Time Physical Activity With Risk of 26 Types of Cancer in 1.44 Million Adults. Moore SC, Lee IM, Weiderpass E. JAMA internal medicine, 2016, Jun.;176(6):2168-6114.
But with all that said, the majority of U.S. adults—nearly 80 percent—still falls short on knocking out these combined weekly goals despite the fact that they’re actually pretty achievable. Thirty minutes of moderate cardio a few times a week? That’s half a This is Us episode, one wash cycle for a load of laundry, or about the time it takes to roast a chicken breast in the oven for dinner. Not bad, right?
Plus, you can slash your time commitment and still reap the same benefits if you opt for higher-intensity sessions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention equates one minute of more vigorous exercise with two minutes of moderate exercise. You’re essentially turbocharging your efforts for a fraction of the time; “It’s like taking a shot of espresso instead of drinking a cup of coffee,” Metzl says.
One thing to keep in mind: “The ACSM position is for adults looking to promote a general overall fitness level, which also affords many health benefits,” Carlson says. So while the minimum recommendations certainly boost overall health, they’re specific to the medical benefits of exercise versus the more aesthetic aspects. Translation? A shredded core, belfie-worthy butt, and other targeted goals may require going above and beyond the broad suggestions. And if you’re trying to see changes on the scale, you’ll have to make good food choices, even if you’re racking up enough workout time. “Exercise combined with a reduction in dietary intake is the best way to promote weight loss,” says Carlson.
Being healthy isn't just about being physically active. It also involves good nutrition and your mental and emotional well-being, so agonizing over every heart-pounding minute is a waste of precious time and energy. It’s easy to get bogged down by the numbers, so know the recommendations, but there’s no need to freak if you fall short on your sweat sessions. After all, any exercise is better than none. Research shows that life-lengthening and heart-boosting benefits begin to manifest about halfway through the recommended workout dose.
Your best bet? Sneak more movement into your everyday life to count toward your goals. Or try finding an activity you love doing, and doing it as often as you can. “If you don’t find anything that makes you smile, you’re not working hard enough,” Metzl says. And when it comes time to get yourself in gear, don’t let the million-and-one reasons for not working out hold you back from good health. “Be stronger than your excuses!” Carlson says.
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