April 14, 2024

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Hitting the activity mark – Harvard Health


When it comes to staying healthy, just how much exercise is enough? The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommend a minimum of 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate-intensity physical activity as well as two muscle-strengthening workouts per week. (Alternatively, you also can do half that amount — 75 minutes per week of activity — but at a more vigorous intensity.)

Organizations like the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association also support these guidelines, which have been the standard for over a decade. “However, it is important to remember that these guidelines are meant for a broad population, and for many older adults, hitting just the 150 minutes per week poses a challenge,” says Dr. George Ross Malik, a sports medicine physician with Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

What’s in a number?

While both physical activity and muscle strengthening are important, experts tend to place more emphasis on the 150 minutes per week, since it helps keep people active and less sedentary. “Some research has suggested that people who regularly sit more than seven hours a day with limited activity have a higher mortality risk, similar to that posed by obesity and smoking,” says Dr. Malik.

So where did the number 150 come from? “When scientific advisory committees and other experts combed the body of evidence linking exercise with chronic conditions like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, a minimum of 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity was repeatedly seen as the threshold for offering health benefits,” says Dr. Malik. “People who regularly met this criterion often had a lower risk for disease and risk factors like weight gain, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.” (Regular activity may also improve brain and sexual health.)

But the key word here is minimum. The guidelines set the low end at 150 minutes, and research has found that going beyond this number offers additional benefits.

Individual needs

Dr. Malik says that the 150-minute target is good to aim for, but your best regimen ultimately depends on your physical condition and goals.

“Everyone is built differently and has different health concerns, which can dictate what is an effective and safe amount of activity,” he says. “For instance, people returning from an injury or with notable health issues may need to exercise for less time or less intensity until they build strength and endurance. It may even be as subtle as simply increasing your daily step count totals at first.” Your fitness goals also play a role. Older men may need to focus more on strength training (doing more than the recommended two days per week) to help offset sarcopenia, the natural loss of muscle mass. Or they may need to do more stretching, flexibility, and balance exercises to address range-of-motion and mobility issues.

“Consulting your doctor or a personal trainer can help you establish specific fitness goals and determine how much activity you require,” says Dr. Malik.

Break it up

While the 150 weekly minutes is still a mark older adults should strive for, the number can feel daunting. Instead of focusing on the entire 150 minutes, break it down into manageable segments, suggests Dr. Malik. For example, 150 minutes equals 30 minutes done five days a week. Another option is to divide those 30 minutes into even smaller segments. “You don’t have to do the entire 30 minutes at once to reap the benefits,” says Dr. Malik. “Try doing 10 minutes of exercise three times a day, or two workouts of 15 minutes each.”

You also need not do the same activity every time. “You can always squeeze in moderate-intensity activity throughout the day,” says Dr. Malik. For instance, hold planks during TV commercials, go for a walk after lunch, and do counter push-ups or squats in the kitchen while waiting for the coffee to brew. Everyday activities like yard work and household chores also count toward your daily number, says Dr. Malik.

Another strategy is to focus on diversity. Find new activities of interest that can supplement your usual routine. For example, join a recreational sports league or pickleball group, or do a Peloton workout or take a yoga class.

As for doing shorter amounts of higher-intensity activity to meet your quota, Dr. Malik suggests this is a level that should be reached with preparation and adequate training. “It is important to reduce the risk of injuries by working gradually toward this more advanced type of exercise and incorporating cross-training to avoid overuse injuries,” he says.

The bottom line is that while it is good to be mindful about reaching 150 weekly minutes, don’t focus on the number itself, but rather on living a healthier lifestyle. “If necessary, begin with doing a smaller amount, like 50 minutes per week, and progress from there,” says Dr. Malik. “Ultimately, it is about reducing sedentary time, staying active, and enjoying what you do. If you focus on that, you’ll gradually reach the 150 minutes consistently and likely even exceed it.”



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