We know that gym memberships come with a cost. Likewise, avoiding the gym also comes with a price tag. In fact, we spend $117 billion per year on health care costs stemming from our inactivity as a society. Currently, only about 26% of men and 19% of women meet recommendations for physical activity. These numbers aren’t surprising. Time, money, motivation, and physical pain are understandable obstacles to exercise for many people.
In my weight management clinic, I’ve seen a lot of people wrestle with these obstacles. If you feel like you’re struggling, you are not alone. Unused gym memberships and basements filled with dusty gym equipment are common. The good news is that I’ve seen countless people gradually overcome these barriers.
I think appreciating the health benefits of exercise is an essential first step towards addressing these obstacles. Yes, weight loss is an obvious benefit, but it’s not the only reason you should exercise. Last week, the U.S. government released updated guidelines for physical activity for Americans. In this post, I’ll summarize 5 concepts you should know about physical activity based on these recent guidelines.
1. What are the different types of physical activity?
I always tell people that physical activity includes any activity beyond sitting. This perspective makes it easier to break down any barriers to becoming active. You simply have to avoid sitting all of the time (check out my post on the dangers of prolonged sitting). If you can’t afford a gym membership—no problem. You don’t have to pay 40 dollars per month not to sit. Of course, cutting back on sitting alone won’t make you an Instagram model. It’s really just a good place to start. The next step is understanding the types of physical activity. According to the updated guidelines, here are the various kinds of physical activity.
Any activity where the body’s large muscles move for a sustained amount of time, therefore improving cardiorespiratory fitness. Aerobic activity is also called endurance or cardio activity. Examples include brisk walking, running, or bicycling.
This activity increases skeletal muscle strength, power, endurance, and mass. Examples include weight lifting or resistance training.
Bone-Strengthening Physical Activity
An activity that produces a force on the bones, which promotes bone growth and strength. Examples include jumping rope or running.
These exercises are designed to improve individuals’ ability to resist forces within or outside of the body that cause falls while a person is stationary or moving. Examples include lunges or walking backward.
Multicomponent Physical Activity
Exercises that include more than 1 type of physical activity, such as aerobic, muscle strengthening, and balance training. Examples include some dancing or sports.
The guidelines emphasize that you should ideally incorporate different types of activity into your routines or daily life. Ultimately, you should start with what you are capable of doing. For most people, walking is a good place to start. However, walking shouldn’t be the finish line for those who are capable of doing more.
2. How intense should our physical activity be according to the guidelines?
The guidelines focus on two levels of physical activity—moderate intensity and vigorous-intensity.
Moderate Intensity Physical Activity
Moderate intensity exercises encompass everyday activities such as walking, gardening, and doing yard work. This fact should be a relief to most people. Cleaning your house has the benefits of both keeping out roaches and keeping your weight down.
Vigorous Intensity Physical Activity
Vigorous exercise is more involved than moderate-intensity activities. Running, playing sports, and lifting weights count as vigorous exercises.
For people who are intimidated about by the idea of exercising vigorously, you should know about relative intensity. Relative intensity basically means that everyone has a different capacity for exercise. Lebron James playing a game of basketball is less intense for him than most people watching a game of basketball. In other words, for some people who aren’t accustomed to exercising, walking may feel like running a marathon. Also, you should know that aerobic capacity decreases with age. So, it’s ok if you’re not keeping up with 21-year-old Joneses. The key is to focus on your personal progression (obviously in a safe way).
Even with relative intensity in mind, how do you know you’re working hard enough? The “talk test” is probably the most straightforward tool. You are probably doing moderate-intensity physical activity if you can talk, but not sing. If you can’t say more than a few words, you’re probably doing a vigorous-intensity exercise.
3. How much time should we spend on physical activity?
Any amount of time spent being active has health benefits, even if it is less than 10 minutes. For example, doing stairs, trying not to park close to the grocery store, or even walking to the grocery store are all helpful. Again, something is better than nothing. These interventions may not get you shredded, but they count. Nonetheless, you need to do more if you are trying to obtain substantial health benefits from exercising.
Adults should aim for at least at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) per week of moderate-intensity. Alternatively, 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) per week of vigorous-intensity physical activity is reasonable for people who don’t have 5 hours to spare. Also, engaging in physical activity beyond the equivalent of 300 minutes (5 hours) per week has additional health benefits.
The guidelines also emphasize that there’s nothing wrong with achieving these durations over 1-2 days instead of several sessions spread throughout the week. If being a weekend warrior is the best you can do, go for it.
Regardless of how you break up the time you spend doing physical activity, the guidelines encourage participating in muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or higher intensity at least 2 days per week.
4. Is weight loss the only health benefit associated with physical activity? No.
Staying active has multiple health benefits besides losing weight. Moreover, the recent guidelines provide an excellent summary of the evidenced-based health benefits associated with physical activity. A recent article in JAMA summarized those benefits:
Lower risk of all-cause mortality
Decrease in the risk of cardiovascular disease mortality
Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (including heart disease and stroke)
Lowered risk of hypertension
Lower risk of type 2 diabetes
Lower risk of adverse blood lipid profile
Decrease risk of cancers of the bladder, breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, lung, and stomach
Reduced risk of dementia (including Alzheimer disease)
Improved quality of life
Reduced risk of depression
Slowed or reduced weight gain
Weight loss, particularly when combined with reduced calorie intake
Prevention of weight regain after initial weight loss
Improved bone health
Improved physical function
Lower risk of falls (older adults)
Lower risk of fall-related injuries (older adults)
5. Should pre-school aged children be active? Yes.
Physical activity also enhances the growth and development of pre-school age children. There are no clear-cut guidelines for the amount of physical activity pre-school age children need. Although, the guidelines state that 3 hours per day is a reasonable target. In other words, having kids run around may be a better alternative to screen time.
What’s the Bottom Line?
- Get active and stay active!
- Aim for 150 minutes to 300 minutes of moderate physical activity
- 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous physical activity is also reasonable. Check out my post on HIIT training (Can High-Intensity Interval Training Protect You From The Risks Of A Fast Food Diet? See What One Study Says).
- Any activity counts. Don’t underestimate the importance of walking the importance of walking, doing stairs, etc.
- Try to do different types of physical activity.
- You don’t need a gym membership to be active (it doesn’t hurt though).
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I am a physician and trained chef. I specialize in gastroenterology and nutrition. Currently I work as the Associate Director of Adult Nutrition at the University of Chicago.