How to Find Your Optimal Level of Physical Activity and Improve Your Health
Updated: Feb 6
As I decided to take a break in 2020 from marathons, triathlons and mountaineering adventures to pursue other personal goals, I found it challenging to figure out my new exercise routine.
My training load in prior years used to be somewhere between 10 hours and 15 hours per week, depending on a race or an adventure I trained for.
When I stopped training in September of last year, my weekly exercise routine decreased to between eight and five hours and there were a couple weeks when my weekly training was less than five hours.
While it was my conscious choice to reduce my training, it created some anxiety about losing my fitness level and its impact on my health.
As I was trying to figure out my new exercise routine, I started doing research on an optimal level of physical activity people need.
For most healthy adults, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends getting at least two hours and thirty minutes to five hours of moderate intensity activity or one hour 15 minutes to 2 hours 30 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic activity a week.
Additional benefits could be gained by engaging in more than five hours of physical activity a week.
HHS also advises that adults should do muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups on two or more days per week. While there is no specific time guideline for strength training, each session should take at least 15-20 minutes.
Below are several definitions provided in the HHS Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which you might find helpful for evaluating your current level of physical activity.
Physical activity refers to any bodily movement produced by the contraction of skeletal muscle that increases energy expenditure above a basal level.
Exercise is a form of physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive, and performed with the goal of improving health or fitness. Although all exercise is physical activity, not all physical activity is exercise. For example, mowing a lawn would be considered physical activity, but not exercise.
Aerobic physical activity (also known as “cardio”) may include brisk walking, jogging, running, elliptical, cycling, swimming, jumping rope, etc. It makes you breathe faster and deeper and increases your heart rate. Aerobic activities can be done either at moderate intensity (brisk walking) or vigorous intensity (running).
Research shows that the total amount of aerobic physical activity each week either at a moderate or vigorous intensity is more important for achieving health benefits than specific type of activity.
Muscle-strengthening activity may include lifting weights, working with resistance bands or body weight training (pushups, pullups, squats, lunges, planks, etc.).
Based on my own experience, building core strength is one of the most essential aspects of strength training. However, it’s also important to work all other major muscle groups of the body, including arms, shoulders, chest, legs, hips and back.
To meet the HSS guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity, one needs to do at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day, which sounds reasonable and should be doable.
However, according to HHS, about 80% of adults are not meeting the key guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity and only about half meet the key guidelines for aerobic physical activity.
We all know the well documented benefits of regular physical activity, including improved health, better mood, more energy, better sleep and less stress and anxiety.
Why do so many people struggle to do it?
Three most common excuses are:
– I am too busy
– I am too tired
– I don’t feel motivated
In the article How to Beat 3 Most Common Excuses for Not Exercising, I described these excuses and provided potential solutions on how to overcome them.
You do not have to spend hours in a gym to experience the physical and emotional benefits of exercise. Even small amounts of moderate physical activity (5-, 10-, or 15-minutes) throughout the day can go a long way.
Many of us have office jobs and we spend eight to ten hours each day sitting in front of a computer. Additionally, we sit during our commute and sit watching TV in the evenings. This sedentary lifestyle leads to numerous health problems.
In his book Get Up! Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It James Levine, MD writes:
“Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death.”
Levine estimates that on average a person sits 13 hours per day, sleeps for eight hours and moves for about three hours.
So even if you exercise for an hour each day, it may not completely counteract all extended sitting.
The good news is you don’t need to quit your job to offset the harmful effects of sitting. However, you need to create habits that would keep you moving more throughout the day.
You want to create and incorporate as much as possible of non-exercise physical activity (NEPA) in your daily life. NEPA includes all physical movement in our lives that is not sports-like exercises.
Some of the daily habits to increase your NEPA include getting up for frequent breaks, using a standing desk (if you have one), doing some standing stretches, taking short walks during lunch breaks, taking the stairs or doing “walk” meetings (if possible).
While exercise has a tremendous health impact and you want to get at least minimum recommended amount of aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity each week, accumulating short bouts of NEPA throughout the day can also be essential for your health and well-being.