Before we can begin to answer the question of how much activity is enough, we need to consider what fitness means. Fitness is synonymous with health, our physical condition and even our ability to complete the tasks required for our ongoing survival (and perpetuation of the species). Our modernised society has overwhelmingly reduced the tasks and activities we need to accomplish to survive, but the general lack of movement has negatively impacted our health and physical condition. Regular physical activity, even in small amounts, can help prevent, treat, and sometimes even alleviate some of the most common chronic conditions we encounter, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, stroke, obesity, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, and some cancers (1,2).
So how much activity is required for fitness? Two of the most widely recognised activity guideline reports for improving physical fitness include Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardiorespiratory, Musculoskeletal, and Neuromotor Fitness in Apparently Healthy Adults: Guidance for Prescribing Exercise from the American College of Sports Medicine (2) and the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (3). These guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiorespiratory exercise, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity, or a combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise per week. The weekly recommendation for resistance training is 2 or more days per week with exercises for all the major muscle groups (minimum of 1 set of 8-12 repetitions for each muscle group). Flexibility and neuromotor exercises (balance, agility, coordination) are also recommended at least twice per week.
The key phrase to note is “at least” with more benefits being realised with more activity. But what if your clients aren’t quite ready to tackle these recommendations? When developing exercise programmes for a previously sedentary individual, meet them where their abilities are now and help them find ways to increase their activity levels. Those 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiorespiratory activity are to be spread out over the week, ideally 30 minutes a day, 5 times per week. Consider that those 30 minutes can be further broken down into 10-minute bouts of activity. Some individuals may even need to start with as little as two minutes of walking and build their way up to 10 minutes over days, or even weeks. The goal is to motivate them to increase their activity and succeed. Even if more activity is better, a little activity beats none at all.
Don’t discount the importance of also increasing unstructured non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) (4). These are the activities beyond sleeping, eating and “intentional exercise” that include daily motions such as standing, walking, using the stairs, fidgeting, yard work, and multiple other movements we make throughout the day. Unstructured physical activity is the foundation that can help people realise that just being active, rather than sedentary, can impact their overall, long-term health.
Understandably, goals need to be explored to discover just how much activity may be needed and over what associated time frame in order to reach those goals. For someone wanting to adopt a healthier lifestyle, finding enjoyable activities with a realistic schedule are essential. Start with a conservative approach where the individual will be successful, safe, and comfortable. Then encourage them to improve the return on their results with a mix of higher frequencies, durations, and intensities of activity.
By Stacey Penney NASM-CES, PES, FNS
1. Clark, MA, Lucett, SC, Sutton, BG. NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training 4th ed. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2012.
2. American College of Sports Medicine. Quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuromotor fitness in apparently healthy adults: Guidance for prescribing exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 2011;43(7):1334-1359.
3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2008 Physical activity guidelines for Americans. http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/default.aspx (accessed June 4, 2013).
4. Levine, JA. Nonexercise activity thermogenesis – liberating the life-force. Journal of Internal Medicine, 2007;262: 273–287.