How to Get the Most Health Benefits from Minimal Exercise: Expert Tips and Strategies

Featured & Cover How to Get the Most Health Benefits from Minimal Exercise Expert Tips and Strategies

The Minimal Effective Dose of Exercise: How Little Can You Get Away With?

A few years ago, personal trainer Anna Maltby had to reduce her exercise routine due to the demands of work and motherhood. Like many of her clients, she found herself without the time or energy to exercise as she used to. She managed several 15-minute workouts each week, and felt it was sufficient for her at that stage. “I actually felt like I got my minimum effective dose for that stage of my life,” she says.

Many people feel they are too busy to exercise, while others actively avoid it. However, research indicates that even minimal exercise is essential for a longer, healthier life, free from conditions like dementia, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Additionally, exercise can improve daily happiness and energy levels.

So, how little exercise is enough to reap these benefits? Experts suggest that it may require a shift in how we define exercise.

Meeting the Minimum Guidelines

Guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. government, and other bodies provide adults with options for minimal weekly aerobic activity. One option is at least 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity, which makes conversation difficult and raises your heart rate to about 80% of its peak. Another option is 150 to 300 minutes of moderate activity, at 60-70% of your maximum heart rate.

A combination of vigorous and moderate exercise is also acceptable, with vigorous workouts counting double towards the weekly goal. For example, 50 minutes of vigorous activity counts as 100 minutes of moderate activity, leaving just 50 more minutes of moderate activity needed to meet the weekly minimum.

These minimal amounts provide significant health benefits with the least effort. “If you look at the statistical curve, the increase in benefits is most dramatic” when these minimums are achieved, says Regina Guthold, an epidemiologist at the WHO. While more exercise brings further benefits, the gains diminish beyond 300 minutes of moderate exercise.

These thresholds also benefit mental health. Mary de Groot, a psychologist at Indiana University School of Medicine, notes that those who exercised 120 to 360 minutes per week had the best mental health in a study involving over one million people.

Saving Time with Hybrid Workouts

Cardio alone isn’t enough; strength training is also essential, at least twice a week. Skipping it can lead to muscle atrophy and osteoporosis. However, strength training can be integrated into cardio sessions by using body weight as resistance, allowing for more repetitions that raise heart rate and build muscle. This “multicomponent activity” is especially recommended for seniors to improve balance and reduce fall risks.

Hybrid workouts, such as pushups, Turkish get-ups, mountain climbers, burpees, air squats, and lunges, can condense weekly exercise into as few as 75 minutes.

Skipping Days, Not Months

Life’s demands often mean skipping exercise for several days. Fortunately, Guthold says that catching up later in the week still provides benefits. “Weekend warriors get the same benefits as those who are active every day for less time,” she notes. Missing a week or two occasionally is also acceptable. Stella Volpe, professor of exercise and nutrition at Virginia Tech, says, “It’s normal for people to have highs and lows with physical activity, even if they love it.”

Even on off-weeks, five minutes of daily activity can improve blood flow, blood sugar, and sleep quality, says Katrina Piercy, an exercise physiologist at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). However, prolonged inactivity, such as two weeks of being sedentary, can significantly reduce aerobic fitness and muscle mass, increasing disease risk.

Combining Exercise with Movement Breaks

Regular movement breaks are crucial, even if they don’t meet exercise intensity. To make the most of these breaks, use them to elevate your heart rate. Studies show that frequent movement breaks reduce death risk, says Keith Diaz, an associate professor at Columbia University Medical Center. He suggests turning breaks into mini-exercise sessions of about five minutes each.

For those who can increase intensity, one-minute exercise bursts, 20 times a week, can be effective. Martin Gibala, a kinesiology professor at McMaster University, recommends quick activities like walking briskly or climbing stairs. This method reduces total exercise time and breaks up sedentary periods.

Redefining Exercise

Exercise doesn’t have to be a formal, time-consuming activity. Gibala’s study found that people who engaged in short bouts of vigorous activity during daily tasks significantly reduced their risk of dying from cancer and heart disease. Diaz found that five-minute walks every 30 minutes improved blood sugar, blood pressure, mood, and energy. These breaks can also boost productivity.

Making exercise a part of daily routines can be as simple as speed-walking meetings or running to the coffee shop. Volpe mentions a friend who dances with his child during TV commercial breaks, noting, “You’ll be amazed how good you feel by dancing a little instead of getting a snack.”

Piercy turns grocery shopping into a workout by racing through the store and carrying groceries in a basket. “Some days I don’t have a formal workout,” she says, “but I grocery shopped, or found other ways to multitask some activity.”

Finding Enjoyable Activities

The best way to reduce exercise time is to engage in physical activities that don’t feel like exercise. This might involve being social, having fun, and enjoying nature. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) at a park with friends is one example. HIIT combines activity bursts with recovery breaks, making exercise more enjoyable. Sports like tennis and interval walking also count. “The rest intervals certainly count toward total minutes because your heart rate stays high during the breaks,” Volpe says.

Exercising in nature can enhance mood benefits. “The improvements in mood are even better when people exercise outside,” Diaz says. “Green exercise” boosts emotions, self-esteem, and protects against depression, adds de Groot.

Personalizing Your Minimum Exercise

Determining your minimum exercise level depends on individual goals and values. “When working with people on physical activity plans, the first thing I do is encourage them to think about their goals and values,” de Groot says.

Your personal minimum exercise (ME) may be higher if you prioritize longevity and health. “The more you exercise, the longer you’ll live free of chronic disease,” Diaz notes. Others might focus on finding a sustainable amount that enhances daily well-being.

Factors to consider when setting your ME include:

– Time commitments:Maltby’s clients, for example, may have limited workout possibilities during pregnancy.

– Physical capacity: Guidelines may vary for those with illnesses or disabilities.

– Developmental stage:Kids need more activity than adults, averaging at least 60 minutes a day.

– Psychological needs:Teens with ADHD, for example, might require more exercise to optimize brain function, says Erin Gonzalez, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Fitness trackers and mood apps can help monitor how different exercise levels affect health, sleep, and emotions. The HHS “Move Your Way” planner assists in creating weekly activity plans. “Monitoring your health data and progress objectively is very helpful,” Gonzalez explains.

Wearable devices can also turn exercise into family bonding time. Instead of instructing teens to be active, achieving minimum goals together can support lasting lifestyle changes. “Doing so can sustain family lifestyle change,” Gonzalez says.

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