Good news: You don’t have to work out for an hour a day.
From better mental health to a longer life, the benefits of exercise are seemingly endless. But with so much information out there about how much you should be exercising, it can be hard to figure out the sweet spot—and it’s easy to assume that more is always better. The good news? You probably need to move less than you think to reap the health benefits, says Edward Phillips, M.D., founder and director of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Harvard Medical School and co-host of WBUR’s Magic Pill podcast.
“People have heard the message that you need 30 minutes of exercise, five days a week [according to federal guidelines]. If you get that, you’ll get 85 percent of health benefits we talk about. However, the misconception is that if I don’t do that, or if I don’t do it all at once, it’s all or nothing,” he says. Phillips also points out that the guidelines call for moderate-intensity exercise, which means you don’t have to be killing yourself with long runs, boot camp, or spin class five days a week in order to relish the rewards.
“A lot of people think exercise means you have to hit the point where you’re completely out of breath and panting after you’ve finished,” says Phillips. “You can do that, but for the majority of health benefits you don’t need to.”
And while your fitness goals probably go beyond lowering your risk for disease, it’s nice to know what research actually shows when it comes to how much exercise you should be doing each week for better health. Here’s how the numbers break down.
Even a little exercise can help keep your ticker strong, studies suggest. For example, research published in the American Journal of Hypertension found that 61 to 90 minutes of exercise a week was more effective at lowering systolic blood pressure (the top number) than 30 to 60 minutes a week. But exercising for more than 90 minutes a week didn’t have an increased benefit when it came to lowering blood pressure or the heart risks associated with it. And a new study published in The Lancet found that heart patients who met the guidelines of at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week saved $2,500 in healthcare costs compared to those who didn’t, suggesting exercise helped stave off complications.
Thirty minutes a week of interval training could be just as effective as longer, steady-state workouts for lowering your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to a recent study published in the journal, PLOS ONE. Three days a week, participants completed either a 10-minute interval-training cycling workout (with a warm-up, cool down, three 20-second all out sprints, and recovery periods) or cycled for 45 minutes at a continuous, moderate pace. After 12 weeks, both groups had similar improvements in insulin sensitivity, a marker of how well the body regulates blood sugar, which can impact the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes.
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Exercise has been found to lower the risk of breast, colon, and endometrial cancers, and the American Cancer Society recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, to lower overall cancer risk. One study from the Breast Cancer Research and Treatment journal found that for every hour per week spent running at a 10-minute mile pace—or every four hours per week spent walking at a 30-minute mile pace—breast cancer risk decreased by 3 percent.
All it takes is a quick sweat session after a long day to notice how exercise seems to melt stress away. And of all the health benefits, that’s one that can be achieved almost instantly, says Phillips.
“The thing that gets people to exercise and sustains them is not saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to exercise because I need to [prevent disease],’ but because it feels good,” he says. “It’s the immediate feedback that compels people, and one of the most immediate things people report is that their stress levels are reduced when they exercise.”
Beyond day-to-day stress, exercise can help relieve depression symptoms, too. In one study published by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, women who were experiencing depression who completed 200 minutes of walking a week (or 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise) had improved mental health, social functioning, physical health, and vitality over time. Other research from the Harvard Special Health Report discovered that walking briskly for 35 minutes a day, fives time a week (or 60 minutes, three times a week) can significantly improve mild to moderate depression, while walking only 15 minutes a day, five times a week, or stretching three times a week are less effective.
Sure, it sounds like a lot, but exercising for 450 minutes is basically the key to the fountain of youth (kind of). In one 2015 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, people who met the guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week had a 31 percent lower risk of dying prematurely than those who never exercised. But the biggest benefit was for those who worked out for three times the recommended amount (450 minutes), which lowered their risk of premature death by 39 percent compared to those who did not exercise.
Here’s a study tip for you: Research published by the Harvard Health Blog suggests 120 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week increases the size of the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for verbal memory and learning.
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