Exercise is deservedly considered the best medicine. It can reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke, lessen your risk of colon and breast cancer, and lower your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. It can also improve your mood, cognitive function, and your fitness in everyday life. But what dose of this medicine do you need to improve your health and live longer?
Conventional wisdom is that more is better. However, scientists do not yet know if there is there is an upper limit to the benefits of exercise, or whether there is a point where it can conversely increase your risk of mortality.
The US Department of Health and Human Services and leading health organizations recommend a minimum of 150 minutes a week, or 30 minutes a day, of moderate intensity aerobic exercise—which is the amount that can substantially reduce your risk of developing a chronic disease.
Whether you are currently falling short or getting more than this amount, results from two recent studies published in JAMA Internal Medicine can help you fine tune your personal goals.
Here are what I think are the biggest take homes.
Going from inactivity to any activity is more helpful than you may think
If you are a couch potato, here is some encouragement: in both of these studies, the greatest health benefits were achieved early on, when participants went from doing nothing to doing something.
In the first of these studies, researchers from the National Cancer Institute and others pooled data from 6 studies that surveyed the exercise habits of over 661 000 participants over the course of 14 years. They found that the group that exercised a little, even less than recommended guidelines, had a 20% reduced risk of premature death.
The sweet spot for exercise is greater than the current recommended guideline.
In order to live your longest life, you may need higher than the recommended amount, or closer to 450 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week.
In the above study, although most of the longer life benefit was reached by getting the recommended amount of exercise (31% reduction in death) those who exercised three to five times the current recommended amount had an additional 8% lower risk of dying prematurely than those who never exercised. Beyond that amount of exercise, even up to 10-fold, the benefits from exercise plateaued.
In line with previous studies, a similar higher dose to higher benefit relationship was seen for reducing the risk of cancer and heart disease.
While the sweet spot for fighting gradual weight gains isn’t exactly known, it is also likely to be more than the recommended 30 minutes a day. In their latest guidelines, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends 150 to 250 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week in order to avoid weight gain.
Combining vigorous activity with moderate intensity activity can add additional years to your life.
Although there is controversy whether the intensity of exercise among competitive athletes can push a body to the point of shortening life, for most people, adding in some vigorous exercise can add a small but incremental benefit to living longer.
In the second of two JAMA Internal Medicine studies, when Australian researchers surveyed the exercise habits of over 200, 000 adults for an average of over 6 years, 3 they found that participants who reported some vigorous activity totaling less than 30% of their total activity had an additional 9% reduction in their risk of dying. When more than 30% or more of their activity was vigorous, their risk of dying was 13% lower.
Your longevity exercise Rx
The best dose of exercise for longevity is to target 450 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise a week, such as walking, gardening, or ballroom dancing; and, trying to get at least 30% of your exercise through vigorous activities, such as jogging, swimming or jumping rope.
Keep in mind, however, that any amount of physical activity can give you a substantial health benefit. The best place to start is trying to get 10 minute increments. And no matter your age, you are never too old to reap the benefits.
Question: How do you incorporate exercise into your day? What benefits have you noticed? Please share your ideas with a comment below.