Exercise Intensity

Experts agree: 150 minutes each week of cardiovascular exercise, plus a couple of sessions of strength training will meet your body’s need for physical activity. 

Reaching that point improves your health in a wide range of ways, from increasing heart health and bone health to reducing cancer risks and improving mental health. 

But how realistic is that as a goal? If it’s your New Year’s Resolution, you’ve made a good choice. If you know that you won’t reach that goal, however, does that mean that there is no point in trying to be less sedentary? Is it all or nothing?

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Intensity can make a difference

One important thing to be aware of when you think about moving more: every little bit helps. Taking a 30-minute bike ride is great, but walking to the mailbox and back is better than sitting still. Use an app to count your steps, set a timer to remind you to get up and move around occasionally, and walk down the hall instead of using email to contact a colleague.

New research suggests that upping the intensity of movements can make a difference, too. A long-term study of more than 25,000 people who did not exercise regularly found that those who spent just four minutes a day in vigorous physical activity lived longer than those who did not. 

The subjects in the study wore trackers that caught them climbing stairs, carrying heavy things, and spending just one or two minutes at a time on other brief spells of vigorous activity in the course of their daily lives. People who exercised intentionally were not included in the study. 

Instead, subjects who moved intensely a few times each day, for a total of about four minutes, were compared with people who never moved with a high level of intensity. These people were climbing stairs or carrying groceries, not taking bike rides or hitting the gym. 

The study found that these intense bursts of activity were beneficial. The results confirmed earlier studies that had suggested that intervals of intense exercise could improve people’s health even if they were not meeting the national fitness goals.

Does this change the recommendations?

This news might make you consider adding high-intensity interval training to your fitness routine. But does it change the overall recommendations? Would you be better off skipping the daily walk and running upstairs a few times instead?

The core recommendations have not changed. 30 minutes a day of cardio is still the best goal. But the researchers who conducted the study point out that many people will not reach this goal. Most of us don’t, in fact. If 150 minutes a week of exercise seems unrealistic for your life, choose a smaller goal. 

Plan to move more intensely when you do move. Bound out to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. Play vigorously with your children. Have a few minutes of a family dance party while you wait for the microwave. Literally, run to the bathroom. 

You might find that you enjoy the feeling of moving vigorously, and you can step up to regular exercise. If not, you can still be confident that you are doing something that will pay off in the long run.