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Your Exercise Routine: How Much Is Enough?

Experts explain why some people should try for 30 minutes of exercise a day, while others need up to 90 minutes.

What Changed?

While these new guidelines may be a frightening thing in the face of a busy lifestyle, they're not far off from where we've been.

"The 2005 dietary guidelines really spell out for us what we've been told along," says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise.

In 1996, explains Bryant, the U.S. surgeon general issued a position that Americans should strive to obtain 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days. While some might have interpreted that to mean three days a week -- a common misconception -- the science has always indicated more than that was necessary to maintain weight and promote health.

In 2002, the Institute of Medicine upped the ante by saying Americans needed to accumulate even more physical activity if they wanted to effectively control weight.

"The 2005 guidelines put all this together and refined the information," says Bryant, "basically saying you want to strive to get in as much physical activity as you can on most days: 30 minutes a day if you're a person of normal body weight and you just want the health benefits of being physically active, 60 minutes if you want to control your weight, and 90 minutes if you want to lose and sustain."

Making Room for Exercise

So Americans need to make time to exercise and find a way to work the recommended amount of physical activity into a busy schedule, whether its 30 minutes or 90. The good news: you can do it in bits and pieces.

"The effects of exercise are cumulative," says Bryant. "It doesn't have to be done all at once. It's like loose change in your pocket -- it all adds up at the end of the day and meets the threshold."

So while you don't need to spend hours at the gym every day, you do have to get the heart pumping.

"Whatever activity it is, you need to move your body to the degree that it's making you breathe faster or harder," says Rick Hall, a registered dietitian and advisory board member for the Arizona Governor's Council on Health, Physical Fitness, and Sports.

And since the new guidelines state you should have physical activity on "most days," what happens if you miss a day?

"Theoretically, you can't make up for lost time if you miss a day of exercise," says Hall. "But in reality, energy balance means that if you burn more calories on the other days, you will in a sense make up for it."

But the bigger problem for most people, explains Hall, is falling off the exercise wagon, and never getting back on.

"Most people get out of their routine, and give up," says Hall. "So when you miss a day, don't try to pack more into your next workout so that you feel so overwhelmed that you never exercise again. At the very least, squeeze some push-ups or sit-ups in at the end of the day, and get back into your routine the next."

So when it comes to the recommendation of 30-90 minutes of physical activity on most days -- can it possibly be done? Yes, if you make it a priority.

"You can do this," Hall tells WebMD. "You have to make it a priority. Most people can incorporate these recommendations into their lives, no matter how busy they are. But it's something you have to want to do."

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