Need to Know
  1. Any amount of exercise provides a benefit
  2. Seven to 12 hours a week lowered early death risk the most
  3. Best exercise? Moderate effort with some intensity mixed in

What’s the right amount of exercise to get? Studies on this have conflicted for years. Is the standard recommendation of 150 minutes per week adequate, or is that too little? And is there such a thing as too much? There’s good news now for those of us looking for better guidance: A couple of new large-scale studies are starting to give us better data on the optimal amount of working out for longer lives and better health.

The first one is huge, as studies go. It pooled data from six ongoing studies, collecting data from more than 660,000 people in the United States and Europe. The other is also substantial, looking at more than 200,000 Australians ages 45 and older. Here are some of the things the two combine to tell us about exercise and mortality:

  • Something is definitely better than nothing. The larger study found that adults who exercised some — but less than the minimum recommendations of 150 minutes per week — still saw benefits. Compared to those who did not exercise at all, they had a 20% lower risk of premature death. Meeting the minimum recommendations increased that benefit, to about a 31% lower risk of dying young.
  • Seven to 12 hours a week looks like the sweet spot. The greatest benefit was seen in those who exercised for three to five times the recommended minimum, or somewhere between seven and 12 hours a week. Those who fell into that category were 39 percent less likely to die prematurely.
  • The exercise doesn’t all have to be intense… In fact, as the New York Times notes, many of those in the 450-minutes-per-week group were exercising moderately, mostly by walking 
  • …but a little intensity can help. The Australian study in particular compared people doing moderate exercise with those doing a bit more vigorous exercise. Those who spent up to 30 percent of their exercise time moving more intensely got a nine percent lower likelihood of premature death, and those who spent more than 30 percent of their time engaged in more vigorous activities lowered their risk by about 13 percent.
  • There is not a point where exercise became harmful. Some people in the larger study were doing as much as ten times the recommended amount of exercise — meaning 25 hours a week or more. They didn’t get any boost beyond the people who were meeting the minimum requirements, but it didn’t hurt them, either.

In other words: It seems from these two big studies like we’ll get the most benefit from exercising an average of an hour a day or a little more, with most of it being moderate exercise and a handful of hours being more intense. And if you like to sweat more than that, well, you do you, because there’s not much of a downside to doing what you love.

Photo credit: Stephanie Rausser