How Much Exercise Do You Need?

There are many opinions on how often I should exercise. I get advice from friends and consultants that range from everyday to once a week. Can you suggest the ideal frequency of exercise?

You would think that a simple question like "How much exercise do I need?" would have a simple answer. Not so. The answer to how much a person should exercise is, "It depends." It depends on your goal. It depends on whether you want to exercise for health or for fitness. There is a difference between being healthy and being fit and healthy. The answer also depends on whether you want to lose weight or maintain your weight, or on whether you want to be "recreationally fit" or "athletically fit". It is difficult to give a one-size-fits-all answer.

Keep in mind that the how-much-you-should-exercise guides given below are not strict recommendations but suggested sample programs culled from different experts.

Determining exercise intensity.
There are three variables in an exercise recommendation - frequency, duration, and intensity. People frequently misinterpret intensity. Without getting into the technical definition (60 percent of your maximum heart rate, etc.), here is a practical way to determine whether aerobic or cardiovascular exercise is low, moderate or high intensity.

Low intensity exercise feels very comfortable. You can breathe easily, can carry on a conversation, and feel like you could go on for hours. During moderate intensity exercise, you are breathing a little faster, but you can still carry on a conversation. High intensity exercise makes your heart thump and makes you breathe hard. You can still talk but only a few words at a time or in very short sentences. Super-high intensity exercise is characterized by hardly being able to talk and gasping for air.

When talking about strength or resistance training, intensity is defined as light or heavy weights. Since the actual weight that is lifted is relative to a person's size and strength, here's how to know whether the weights you are lifting are light or heavy. If you can lift the weight 15 to 20 times without fatiguing your muscle too much, the weight is light. If you can only lift the weight 8 to 15 times before your muscles get tired, the weight is moderately heavy. If you can only lift the weight 4 to 6 times, it is very heavy.

Exercise for health.
The minimum exercise recommendation for health benefits is 30 minutes worth of moderate-intensity exercise every day. The 30-minutes can be split into three 10-minute sessions. This recommendation was made in 1994 by the American College of Sports Medicine and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to encourage sedentary people (translation: couch potatoes) to exercise.

The researchers found that sedentary people who accumulated 30-minutes worth of physical activity everyday had significant protection from chronic illnesses, such as artery disease, type II diabetes, hypertension, depression, and certain cancers. They also increased their HDL cholesterol (the good kind of cholesterol) and lowered their risk of forming blood clots.

The studies discovered that any physical activity of moderate-intensity would do. Examples cited were walking, climbing stairs, gardening, housework, calisthenics-type exercises, cycling, and dancing.

This type of exercise program will not make you fit, but it will help to keep you healthy. It represents the minimum, not a goal to aim for.

Average adult fitness.
This minimum exercise recommendation is for the average adult who is interested in "recreational" fitness. In other words, someone who wants to be fit to play their favorite sport, keep up with the demands of work, maintain their normal weight, and delay the effects of aging.

Three days a week of moderate to high intensity aerobic activity done for 30 to 60 minutes will improve cardiovascular fitness (also known as aerobic capacity or stamina).

Two days a week of muscle-strengthening exercises will make bones, muscles, and joints stronger. One set of 8 to 15 repetitions is recommended for each major muscle group (8 to 10 exercises).

Stretching exercises should be done after every aerobic or strength training session. One stretch per major muscle group. Hold the stretch without moving for at least 10 seconds. This recommendation is true for all other categories mentioned below.

Weight loss.
Thirty to sixty minutes of moderate-to-high intensity aerobic activity done three to six days a week will maximize calorie burning.

Low intensity aerobic exercise done for a longer duration is safer for unfit obese individuals.

Strength-training (same recommendation as "average adult fitness") is important to build hard and firm muscles. At the same time, it will increase the ability of the body to burn more calories since muscles are metabolically active tissues. Strength training or weight lifting can also be used to re-shape the body. For instance, a woman can broaden her narrow shoulders so her hips don't look so big and her waist appears smaller.

Weight gain.
Twenty minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity done three times a week is sufficient for maintaining a healthy heart and stamina without burning too many calories.

Two to three times a week of strength training is imperative for weight gain because most skinny people have such small muscles. Two to three sets of 8 to 12 repetitions (moderately heavy) would be more appropriate to build mass.

Low intensity aerobic exercise like walking for 15 to 60 minutes, three to five times a week.

A minimum of two days a week of strength training is necessary to prevent muscle atrophy due to age and inactivity. One exercise per major muscle group done for one set of 10 to 15 repetitions (in other words, light weights).

Special stretching and balance exercises at least three times a week are very important. Exercises like Tai chi are beneficial in developing balance and coordination in elderly people.

Children should have a minimum of 20 to 30 minutes of moderate to high intensity physical activity every day. The average child should be able to easily fulfill this recommendation by playing games of a physical nature during recess, after school, and over the weekend.

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