Above: Me sucking wind after a tough workout.
We often hear what the minimum amount of exercise we need is, but what amount of exercise is actually optimal? At what point have we reaped all the benefits exercise has to offer, and possibly even gone over the edge into damaging overtraining?
With the largest snowstorm in years lashing my apartment today, I thought it was as good a time as any to try to find an answer.
The federal government recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week. This establishes a useful lower bound we definitely shouldn’t dip below, but a highly cited study in JAMA Internal Medicine finds that you can get further longevity benefits by exercising a lot more:
the longevity benefit threshold appears to be approximately 3 to 5 times the recommended physical activity minimum
So, in order to be sure to get the maximum longevity benefit, you need to do five times the minimum recommended level of exercise. 5x the minimum recommended level would be 1 hour 47 minutes of moderate activity daily or 54 minutes of vigorous activity daily.
Furthermore, the study found no danger from exercising even more than what it takes to get the full longevity benefit:
there does not appear to be an elevated mortality risk with LTPA [leisure time physical activity] levels as high as 10 or more times the recommended minimum.
Looking at the differences between moderate and vigorous activity, I also wondered if one is better than the other. There doesn’t seem to be solid data to say that either moderate or vigorous activity is superior from a health perspective:
comprehensive reviews of the literature on physical activity and mortality report that overall volume of physical activity is associated with lower mortality risk but report mixed findings on the relative contributions of moderate- vs vigorous-intensity activities
So am I doing enough? Looking at the pedometer app on my phone, I’ve averaged 2.75 hours per day of walking (moderate intensity exercise) over the past year. I also do about 3-4 hours a week of vigorous exercise (yoga and strength training, mostly), so about 30 min daily.
So, I seem to be comfortably above the level needed to get the maximum longevity benefit. That said, counterintuitively, I sometimes find my mood is a little lower on days I don’t do vigorous activity. (You think you’d be happy for a rest day, but maybe not!) Just because I’m at the maximum amount of exercise to produce longevity benefits doesn’t mean that more exercise might not produce other benefits in terms of mental health, athletic ability, appearance, etc.
Since there appears to be no harm from even very high levels of activity, I may add another vigorous workout (likely yoga or calistenics) to my routine some weeks, depending on my schedule and desires at the time.
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