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.

From the WebMD Archives

In January 2005, the U.S. government released a new set of dietary guidelines essentially telling us that as Americans get bigger, so does the length of time we need to be physically active.

While it's a little more involved than that, the guidelines from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services indicate that at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity is required to reduce the risk of chronic diseases in adulthood. And for some, that's only the beginning.

"The dietary guidelines committee primarily focused on the role of physical activity in influencing energy balance and weight status," says Russell Pate, PhD. Pate was a member of the dietary guidelines advisory committee.

"We felt that it was important to reaffirm the 30 minutes of exercise every day guideline as applicable to all adults," says Pate, "but also go beyond that and focus on people who tend to gain weight anyway even if they are meeting that 30-minute threshold."

Thirty minutes of exercise every day? And in some cases, even more? While it might not be music to your ears, it is health to your body.

"Poor diet and physical inactivity, resulting in an energy imbalance (more calories consumed than expended), are the most important factors contributing to the increase in overweight and obesity in this country," according to the guidelines.

Going Beyond the 30-Minute Threshold

It's not like we haven't heard it before: Exercise is an essential part of the health equation, and 30 minutes a day is where it begins.

"Thirty minutes of physical activity is across the board to all adults, every day of the week," says Pate, who is a professor at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina. "There is enormous scientific information to support this."

Meeting the 30-minute threshold will help a person maintain a healthy weight and reap health benefits like lowering the risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, and hypertension, according to the guidelines.

From there, the amount of physical activity a person needs climbs, depending on their weight status.


"For those who are following the 30-minute guideline and gaining weight anyway, they may need as much as 60 minutes a day to prevent weight gain," says Pate.

And at the high end of the spectrum is 90 minutes of exercise every day.

"The 90-minute recommendation is for people who have been significantly overweight, lost a substantial amount of weight, and seek to maintain that weight loss in the long term," Pate tells WebMD. "Data from the National Weight Loss Registry indicates that people who have been overweight succeed in losing and maintaining weight loss for an extended period if they are highly active during the period when they are maintaining the loss."

Ninety minutes is the bottom line for people in this category, although some might comment that most people aren't even doing 30, so why would they do two or three times that?

"It looks different, and dramatic and potentially controversial," says Pate. "But whether you like the facts or not, it's important to base the recommendation on the best science available."

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."


Working in the Workouts

Here are some suggestions for becoming physically active:

  • Start by remembering that physical activity doesn't always mean the dreaded "e" word: exercise. "Encourage yourself to be physically active by doing things you actually enjoy," says Hall. "Make a list of things you like to do that are active, and find ways to fit them in."

  • Make it a group event. "Take a walk with your family, go for a walk with friends at lunch, take your kids to the park and play with them instead of sitting on the bench," says Hall.

  • Go for the tried and true. "Take the stairs instead of the elevator, and park your car further away from the office," says Hall. "These are small ways to incorporate regular physical activity into your daily routine that add up over the course of the day."

  • Find new things to do. Try swimming, hiking, water skiing, snow skiing -- something new and different. "There are so many things that are physically active that are fun, so make it a priority to do those things," says Hall. "It's good for your physical and mental well-being."

  • Find a support system, and reward yourself. Pate's recommendation for working the required amount of physical activity into your daily routine is to build a network of support. "People are more likely to succeed with adopting increased physical activity if they build good social support around the activity," says Pate. "Be active with a family member or a friend, and set up a reward system together so when you achieve something, like being active on 90% of the days you agree to, go to the movies or go out for a healthy dinner."

  • Start with 30. "I worry a lot about people misinterpreting the recommendations or being discouraged by the sense that they may need even more physical activity than they've been told before," says Pate. "My advice is to meet that 30-minute guideline and see if there is a problem with weight management. Lots of people who are not meeting that 30-minute guideline and work up to it will find that their weight will stabilize or they may lose weight."

From there, Pate explains that you can determine whether the 60- or 90-minute recommendation is right for you.

"If you meet the 30-minute guideline consistently for an extended period and gain weight anyway, you are one of the people who needs more than that to maintain energy balance," says Pate. "This all comes down to the individual, and how they act on the guidelines."


New Guidelines in 2010

The guidelines are updated every five years, as required by law. So until 2010 when a new set is announced, the 30-60-90-minute rule is in effect, and Americans need to find their threshold and work it in to their daily lives.

While a new set of guidelines might change that number -- for better or worse, depending on how you look at it -- the current goal is: "Balance energy and weight status," says Pate. "And, make it fun. Meet your goals in a way you enjoy."

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 30, 2009


Published Sept. 19, 2005.

SOURCES: Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist, American Council on Exercise. Rick Hall, MS, RD, nutrition department, Arizona State University; advisory board member, Arizona Governor's Council on Health, Physical Fitness, and Sports. Russell Pate, PhD, Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina; government dietary guidelines advisory committee member. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, "Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005."
© 2005 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.


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