How much exercise is enough

When I was in grad school all the students had to do treadmill stress tests on each other as part of our training.  In most stress tests the participant will walk or run on a treadmill as the speed and incline increases each minute.  These testing protocols are designed so that healthy young adults usually reach their peak and have to stop in about 10-12 minutes.  Sure enough, that’s about how good we all did.

Except for one guy.  We put this one college student on the treadmill and ran him for 8 minutes, then 10 minutes, then 12 minutes, and he was not showing any sign of stopping.  One by one all the observers’ jaws dropped in amazement as this subject ran past 15 minutes, past 17 minutes, past 20 minutes!  

Photo by Julia Larson on Pexels.com

None of us including the professor had ever seen anyone able to run that fast up that type of incline for that long.  He finally stopped somewhere around the 22 minute mark.  We asked him what his secret was and he shrugged and said he was an Army drill instructor and that he led aerobics classes on the weekends as a hobby.

When I got this job at Southwest Hospital, we got some new stress testing equipment and we all took turns doing stress tests.  It was at that point that I realized that a couple of my co-workers were not actually human.  These two ladies were amazing to watch!  Nothing would stop them for minute after minute of near-maximal exertion.  The sweat and snot and tears could be running off of them in rivulets and they just would not stop running!  We measured one coworker’s aerobic fitness as being in the 99th percentile of women in the world.  A second co-worker we measured at 95th percentile in the world!  

Needless to say, not all of us want to – or are even able to exercise at that intensity, so how much aerobic exercise is enough for us mere mortals to get some health benefits? Fortunately for the rest of us we don’t have to be that fanatical (unless that works for you).  Studies have shown that for most folks just doing a little bit more than usual does you the most good. 

Of course, you might have to do more than that bare minimum if you want to stay fit for some particular activities or sports…

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Some years back the national guidelines suggested that we should all strive to get 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise 3 days per week but it turns out that when you tell some folks, 30 minutes 3 days per week, then they might consider it as acceptable to do 10-20 minutes 1-2 days per week – so the national guidelines were increased a bit.

The current official guidelines for adults from the Department of Health and Human Services (translated by me from science-speak to human-speak).

  • All adults should avoid inactivity. Some physical activity is better than none, and adults who participate in any amount of physical activity gain some health benefits.
  • For substantial health benefits, adults should do moderate-to-vigorous exercise 45-60 minutes per day most days of the week in episodes of at least 10 continuous minutes.  Moderate-to-vigorous means hard enough to sweat and breathe hard, and too hard to talk or sing easily.
  • For additional and more extensive health benefits, adults might choose to do more exercise than that.
  • Older adults may choose to do less but they should still avoid inactivity.
  • Children should do more than adults – at least an hour every day.