Regular physical activity is important for health and performance

Do you get enough exercise? Do you perform 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity every week? Or do you work out for at least 30 minutes 5 times each week? You’ve probably seen one of these questions, or some variation, on your annual personal health assessment. Why is that?

This question gets asked frequently because it gives you an idea of your long-term physical health. Those who get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity every week have a much lower risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease—top killers of Americans every year. Inactive people who spend a lot of their day sitting also have a much higher risk of early death from these conditions. The good news is that you can reduce your risk by moving more. Simply sitting less during the day won’t help much, so the real health benefit comes from being more active.

Guidelines

It’s important to aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, or a combination of the two each week. Tip: 1 minute of vigorous-intensity physical activity counts as 2 minutes of moderate-intensity activity.

Intensity levels

Moderate-intensity physical activity should be fairly strenuous. On a scale from 1–10, it’s a 5 or 6. And it should be hard for you to talk during exercise. Moderate-intensity activities include:

  • Fast walking (3–4 MPH)
  • Swimming
  • Biking (slower than 10 MPH)
  • Dancing
  • Yard work or housework

Vigorous-intensity physical activity is even harder. On a scale from 1–10, it’s a 7 or higher, and you shouldn’t be able to hold a conversation during exercise. Vigorous-intensity activities include:

You might notice that strength-training activities aren’t listed above. While muscular strength is important and offers some benefits that aerobic training can’t provide, it isn’t always performed at a high enough intensity to count towards moderate- or vigorous-intensity activity.

Benefits

Regular exercise works for more than just keeping you alive longer: It helps you feel alive too. It reduces your risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. Physical activity also helps prevent depression and anxiety, and it can help you manage related symptoms. In short, exercise helps make you more resilient, able to tolerate high stressors, recover, and grow from them. When staying active can touch just about every aspect of your physical and mental health, it starts to make sense why many experts say, “Exercise is medicine.”

References

Ekelund, U., Steene-Johannessen, J., Brown, W. J., Fagerland, M. W., Owen, N., Powell, K. E., . . . Lee, I. M. (2016). Does physical activity attenuate, or even eliminate, the detrimental association of sitting time with mortality? A harmonised meta-analysis of data from more than 1 million men and women. The Lancet, 388(10051), 1302–1310. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(16)30370-1

Hower, I. M., Harper, S. A., & Buford, T. W. (2018). Circadian rhythms, exercise, and cardiovascular health. Journal of Circadian Rhythms, 16(1). doi:10.5334/jcr.164

Khanzada, F. J., Soomro, N., & Khan, S. Z. (2015). Association of physical exercise on anxiety and depression amongst adults. Journal of the College of Physicians and Surgeons Pakistan, 25(7), 546–548.

Schuch, F. B., Vancampfort, D., Richards, J., Rosenbaum, S., Ward, P. B., & Stubbs, B. (2016). Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis adjusting for publication bias. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 77, 42–51. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2016.02.023

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2018). Physical activity guidelines for Americans. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from https://health.gov/paguidelines/second-edition/pdf/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf.