What is considered physical activity and how much do I need?

The importance of physical activity is something that most of us are familiar with.  Getting enough physical activity is linked with reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, overweight/obesity, and some cancers, just to name a few.  Additionally, being physically active is linked with increased longevity and mental happiness.  All of this may leave you wondering, “What is considered physical activity?”, and “How much do I need to do in order to receive the associated health benefits?” 

Recommendations for Physical Activity

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), physical activity is anything that gets your body moving. The CDC breaks down physical activity recommendations into two different categories: aerobic and muscle strengthening.  Adults 18-64 years old need to do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity per week and complete muscle strengthening activities on at least 2 days of the week.


Aerobic Activity

Aerobic activity is what you would probably think of as “cardio”.  It is anything that makes you breathe harder and makes your heart beat faster. This can be anything from taking the stairs at work, to running on a treadmill. The key is to make sure that you are exercising at the recommended intensity.  One way to know which level of intensity you are exercising at is to think of the talk/sing test.

Moderate Intensity

When you are exercising moderately, you should be able to talk, but not sing.  You should also be breaking a sweat.  Examples of moderate physical activity are walking fast, water aerobics, riding a bike with a few hills, and pushing a lawnmower.

Vigorous Intensity

When you are exercising vigorously, you should not be able to sing at all and speaking should be very difficult.  You should be breathing hard, sweating more, and generally feel out of breath. Examples of vigorous physical activity include jogging or running, swimming laps, riding a bike fast or on hills, and playing basketball.

Another good cardiovascular workout is high intensity interval training (HIIT), which interspaces quick movements with short breaks. The movement portion is performed at a high intensity (all-out effort). To learn more about HIIT, check out this article from the American College of Sports Medicine.





Why it’s good for your health

The heart needs physical activity, just like any other muscle in the body and aerobic activity is great for giving it a workout.  When your heart beats faster, you are pumping blood which carries oxygen to all parts of your body.  This will provide an energy burst not only for your physical self, but for your mental health since the blood is also transported to the brain.  Regular aerobic physical activity helps to keep arteries and other blood vessels flexible, ensuring good blood flow and normal blood pressure.

Muscle Strengthening

So what counts as muscle strengthening activities?  These activities include things like weight training, resistance bands, yoga, and some body weight training.  The key is that you want to work all your major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders, and arms).  Slowly increasing the amount of weight and number of repetitions you do will give you even more benefits, no matter your age.


Just as with aerobic activity, it is important to make sure that you are maintaining the proper level of intensity throughout strength training.  The CDC recommends that you train so that it is difficult to complete another repetition without help.  Remember, muscle strengthening activities do not count toward your cardiovascular physical activity, unless you are doing High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). 

Why it’s good for your health

Muscle-strengthening activities can help you increase or maintain your muscle mass and strength. Additionally, it is good for bone health.  Muscle strength training helps bones maintain their density which can help reduce arthritis, hip fractures, and joint injuries, to name a few.

Take home point

For optimal health benefits, it is important to do the recommended amount of both aerobic (“cardio”) physical activity and muscle strengthening activity.  It is also important to maintain the proper level of intensity while exercising.

If you are low on time, try breaking up your physical activity into bursts of 10 minutes that are spread out over the day.  Always try to reach your goals, but remember that something is better than nothing.



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