What is the right dose of exercise, how much before you hurt yourself, or stop seeing more benefits?
You could be the AM riser, out jogging predawn in neon sneakers and sweatband, having just donned luminescent jacket or slicker. Maybe you’re the lunch hour weight lifter. Or perhaps you take the evening shift, the post-work workout, at the hour when recumbent bikes and elliptical machines facing streetward fill with shining, exhausted yet determined young professionals.
At this point, if you don’t consider yourself a member of any one of these groups or a serious exerciser in general, don’t worry. The point is that there are a lot of people out there who take their exercise seriously, with good reason.
The benefits of exercise are pretty much indisputable. By now, there are many studies having demonstrated an association between increased physical activity and reduced risk of the following: heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and dementia—and more.
Unfortunately, despite this research, in the US, physical inactivity is now considered pandemic, with more than 50 percent of adults failing to meet activity recommendations.
As of 2008, these general guidelines were as follows: 30 minutes daily of exercise at a moderate intensity—a brisk walk, dancing, even gardening lands in this category—which shouldn’t be hard to squeeze into your schedule.
Or you can go for 75 minutes weekly of “vigorous-intensity” exercise, such as legit running, fast cycling, and competitive sports. Spin classes, too, though not hot yoga, probably falls into the vigorous category.
So now you have the guidelines. But here is the kicker (and what may confound exercise junkies, or give primary care physicians a headache): new research suggests that high amounts of exercise can be harmful and carry greater risk of cardiovascular mortality.
What kind of empirical and peer-reviewed clout does this claim carry?
Well, several studies in the US and Europe, Taiwan, and the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study, suggest that just a tad of exercise daily can deliver substantial health benefits—a finding that tackles many individuals’ most common excuse, “I’m too busy.”
Results of one large study in Taiwan showed just 15 minutes daily of moderately intense exercise reduced mortality risk by all causes, and added 3 more years of expected life, compared to participants’ more indolent peers.
When it comes to their more vigorous exercising counterparts, researchers found health benefits increased, until the most heavy-duty of exercisers reached a range of 63 to 88 minutes per day.
According to results from the National Walkers’ and Runners’ Health studies, risk of cardiovascular mortality fell most for patients exercising 38 to 96 minutes each day.
Only a fraction—a very small one, really—of the collected data and studies’ outcomes are presented here. Taken as a whole, however, you can walk away with a basic exercise protocol, and peace of mind when you consider these three points:
- While there’s not a known, concrete upper limit on exercise, it seems that there’s no concrete health benefit, either, to more than 100 minutes per week.
- When it comes to vigorous exercise, the “less is more” approach may yield the biggest health benefit (though some studies suggest too much high intensity activity might decrease the benefits, these results are still disputed).
- Compared to no physical activity, there’s no amount of vigorous physical activity linked to higher mortality rates.
How to distill these points into action?
#1 Keep the idea of 100 minutes of moderate activity mind. Build it into your schedule. Brisk walks to the convenience store, daily commute, errands, social outings—especially ones that involve hiking or dancing—all present opportunities to meet your hundred mark.
#2 Don’t overdo it. Be careful. Create a plan. You want to ease into exercise. Raise intensity in metered increments and over time especially if you haven’t been regularly exerting yourself.
Setting specific days and times, with the goal of 3 days a week, or 2 to 4 days per week to start, will give you a structure you can rely on, until your exercise becomes routine.
#3 Be rigorous about any activity, be it moderate or vigorous. Simply put, some activity is better than none. It doesn’t take much, but takeaways for your health could be substantial.