How much exercise do you really need to do?
Updated: Jun 3
Let's start with the World Health Organisation's physical activity recommendations for 18-64 year old’s:
* At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular activity per week, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardiovascular activity throughout the week, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity cardio.
* For additional health benefits, increase the moderate-intensity cardio to 300 minutes per week, or equivalent. * Muscle-strengthening activities involving major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week. A CLOSER LOOK AT THOSE RECOMMENDATIONS At first glance 150 minutes or more may seem like a lot, when you break it down though it's an achievable 30 minutes, 5 days a week. This moderate level of activity can include 'recreational or leisure-time physical activity, walking and household chores'. Clearly much of that wouldn't be very intense. Lots of people will do 30 minutes of that in the course of a normal day. Many who do wouldn't consider themselves very active. This base level recommendation must be that low beause of what the W.H.O statistics reveal; in '2010 in developed countries, 26% of men and 35% of women were insufficiently physically active.' Clearly for a significant number of people it'd be a big leap to go from doing almost nothing to serious hour-long workouts, the W.H.O in essence simply wants people moving more. When you compare those weekly guidelines to another common recommendation of 10 000 steps a day it seems even less i.e. that requires walking at a moderate intensity for about 100 minutes a day! That's 700+ minutes/week, clearly a massive step up (pardon the pun) from 150 minutes/week. Vigorous intensity is really a dedicated workout, the W.H.O define it as a 7 -8 out of 10 level of exertion. This will involve a level of discomfort. It's broad and generally explained but jogging or some other structured cardio exercise is what's needed. 75 minutes a week at that level would break down to just 15 minutes 5 times a week. Then there's the 'Muscle-strengthening activities'. There's not much detail in the W.H.O information about it but I interpret it as an additional 30 minutes twice a week of resistance training, primarily focused on exercises that work the larger (or multiple) muscles. This strength training is an important component as it's being dicovered there's wide ranging benefits never considered before. Those benefits aren't just limited to the muscles either, it's suprisingly being shown to be good for the brain.
HIIT: A SPANNER IN THE WORKS Just to confuse the issue we have the growing popularity of HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training). If vigorous is classed as a 7-8/10 intensity, then HIIT is 9 or even 10/10. This is not mentioned in the W.H.O recommendations and if it were the time per week suggestions would be even less than the 75 minutes for vigorous activity. There are some amazing benefits from this method although the obvious drawback is the extreme intensity, it's hard to get motivated to go that hard regularly, especially if you don't have an established exercise routine or good fitness level. The attraction though is it's so short. It's not uncommon to hear or read that all you need is seconds or a minute of exercise a day to get great benefit. If that sounds too good to be true, it's probably because it is. I've expanded on the Pro's and Con's of HIIT in another post. I'd imagine the W.H.O will include HIIT in the recommendations at some point. HOW HARD IS RELEVANT TO HOW MUCH A rule of thumb is you can go long or hard, but you can't do both, the W.HO. recommendations reflect that. If walking is your exercise of choice you've got to do lot's to really get the benefit. I think the 10 0000 steps a day is a good model, aside from the large weekly time commitment, it's very practical. There is little you need in the way of equipment or facilities. It's more or less possible anywhere, any time. Even doing 10 000 steps a day you're still not actually going to experience some of the pluses unique to vigorous or high intensity cardio or strength training. The bodies chemistry really shifts and moves with those more demanding types of exercise and there's then the associated significant changes in mood, blood sugar level, and bone density. Walking is sustainable and practical, but it lacks that bang! HABIT IS KING! What needs to be considered is that consistency and routine really do matter. How much exercise you do over months, years and even decades will strongly influence your long-term health and appearance, so making it sustainable is critical.
Getting to the point where it's so habitual you barely have to think about it is the ideal. Attention and energy is best directed into making that happen and in my experience massive change doesn't lend itself to that. Try to make the intensity and amount appropriate and doable and thus repeatable. You can always up the ante once the habit is set. Here's a sense of how it works in practice. This would be my approach with a new Personal Training client who hasn't been exercising regularly:- I'll explain and aim to have the training sessions be vigorous, that means the overall intensity of sessions be at 7 out of 10. Inevitably there'll be small peaks up to 8 and troughs down to 5 or 6 but I want them to feel it's productive and purposeful yet sustainable and achievable. The sense that it's daunting, because it's really uncomfortable or even painful, won't help with establishing a habit. If they do an hour personal training session each week it's useful, 2 per week though is far more beneficial and 3 is ideal, it means results happen much quicker and more significantly. Naturally factors like cost and time available come into it but whether all the training happens with me or independently, getting into that vigorous zone for 20 minutes or more 3 times a week is a good general target to strive for. I should add that most personal training sessions include strength training and there is great structure and routine with that. It's what's needed with weight training- a specific structured routine done, repeated frequently, with gradual progression (Aka progressive overload) to ensure muscles get bigger and stronger. 2 times or ideally 3 times per week is really the way forward with strength training. A typical personal training session consists of approximately 20-30 minutes of strength training, 20-30 of cardio training and about 10 minutes of stretching. HORSES FOR COURSES If you have a goal of completing an endurance event or losing weight fast or getting in shape to play a demanding sports the training needs will be more specific and often lengthier. In fact, like a Formula One car needing more attention and maintenance than your suburban sedan, if you demand high levels of performance from your body not only will the exercise load go up but inevitably find yourself needing to do things to maintain the body. This could be in the form of unloaded recovery exercise like swimming. Activities like stretching, pilates or rehabilitation exercises also become more neccessary. A LOOK AT A PRACTICAL SUGGESTION Most people simply want the general (yet broad ranging & significant) benefits from exercise while dealing with the demands of work and family. That is certainly possible, and here's a realistic format that'll do it and also satisfy the W.H.O recommendations; *2 x week, with a 2 day recovery between sessions, do 30 minutes of strength training followed by 15 minutes of vigorous cardiovascular exercise. That could be Monday and Friday. *Once a week 30 minutes of vigourous cardiovascular exercise on it's own. Wednesday would be ideal- it'd space the workouts out nicely. The 75 minutes of vigorous activity is accounted for you can also tick off the twice weekly strength training. I'm assuming there'll also be a reasonable amount of what the W.H.O regard as moderate intensity activity. This is the recreational and leisure activities, chores and walking- basically a fair bit of incidental exercise. I'm sure if more adults in the western world did just that we'd have a happier, healthier population and reduced strain and reliance on the health systems. Need to or want to meet the physical activity recommendations but struggling to get going? Why not get in touch to find out how a personally tailored exercise program or personal training can help?
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