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Harvard Commentaries
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Harvard Commentaries
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Man to Man Man to Man
 

How Much Exercise Do You Need?


January 24, 2013

By Harvey B. Simon M.D.

Harvard Medical School

Your brother plays tennis every weekend, and your partner hits the gym three times a week. Your lady walks every day, your nephew is training for a marathon, and his sister takes yoga and dance. You putter in the yard and enjoy a round of golf now and then, but you've finally decided to get serious about exercise.

To put good intentions into action, you need a goal. How much exercise do you need? Ask the U.S. Surgeon General, the Institute of Medicine, the American Heart Association, and the American College of Sports Medicine and you're likely to get four different answers. That's no surprise. In fact, you're the only one who can decide just how much and what kind of exercise is best for you.

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Why Exercise?

People exercise for one of five reasons:

  • Work
  • Health
  • Recreation
  • Competition
  • Appearance

The amount of exercise you need depends on:

  • Why you want to exercise
  • Your starting point
  • How quickly you want to achieve your goals

And the type of exercise you use to meet your needs depends on:

  • Your personal abilities and preferences
  • Your schedule and commitments
  • The exercise facilities available to you

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Five Reasons To Exercise

Let's look at these in more detail.

1. Exercise for work

For better or worse, not many American men get their needed exercise through work. As recently as 150 years ago, about 30% of all the energy used for agriculture and manufacturing in the United States depended on human muscle power. No more. We've replaced hoes with tractors, footpaths with highways, and stairs with escalators and elevators. Freed from physical work, men have used mental work to create a society of enormous convenience and comfort. In the process, though, we've created a hidden energy crisis — not a shortage of fossil fuels, but a shortage of the physical activity the human body needs to ward off disease and reach its full potential.

2. Exercise for health fitness

Exercise is the best-kept secret in preventive medicine. Regular exercise provides essential protection against many of the diseases that plague Americans:

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Osteoporosis and fractures
  • Depression
  • Colon cancer and other cancers
  • Dementia (memory loss)

It takes less exercise than you may think to protect yourself against these diseases. The key is what exercise scientists call isotonic exercise — activities that use your large muscle groups in a rhythmic, repetitive way without making your muscles work against heavy resistance. Doctors used to call this "aerobic" exercise because we thought it had to be intense enough to boost your heart rate into the aerobic range (70% to 85% of your maximum heart rate). We also called it "endurance" exercise because we thought it had to be sustained continuously to be beneficial.

But we now know that neither of these long-held beliefs is true. In fact, you can get all the health benefits you need from moderate exercise that won't make you huff and puff, even if you do it in little chunks of time. It just needs to add up to enough total activity.

I coined the term "cardiometabolic exercise" (CME) to cover a range of activities from climbing the stairs in your office building to pushing yourself on an elliptical trainer. All of these will improve your heart, your metabolism and your health. To get the health benefits, doctors should "prescribe" at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise or 15 minutes of intense exercise a day. To see how your exercise stacks up, use this CME point system. Aim for at least 150 CME points a day.

Cardiometabolic Exercise Points for Selected Activities

Activity
Minutes
CME Points
Mowing the lawn
50
200 (hand mower)
145 (power mower)
Sexual activity with familiar partner
15
25
Stair climbing
10
100 (up)
30 (down)
Washing car by hand
30
100
Biking
30
250
Pulling golf clubs
30
145
Jogging (12-minute mile pace)
30
200
Singles tennis
30
200
Walking (12-minute mile pace)
30
135
Yoga (Hatha) (12-minute mile pace)
30
130

Excerpted from The No Sweat Exercise Plan. Lose Weight, Get Healthy, and Live Longer. A Harvard Medical School Book by Harvey B. Simon, M.D. (McGraw-Hill, 2006).

Mix daily activities, formal workouts, and sports to get the cardiometabolic exercise you need for health. And for best results, do some stretching nearly every day and some strength training two or three times a week. The older we get, the more we need these supplementary activities. And as the years roll on, most of us will also benefit from some simple exercises to improve balance and prevent falling, a major health problem for seniors.

3. Exercise for recreation

No need for a point system, clock or calendar when you're exercising for the fun of it, as long as you meet your minimum needs for health — 150 CMEs a day or about 1,000 a week.

But the recreational value of exercise brings up a point that's relevant for hard-working men who are "too busy to exercise." Exercise is a great way to blow off steam and lift your spirits. If your work threatens to overload your psyche, consider using exercise to refresh your mind. For some, that will mean a trip to the gym to burn off some stress on a treadmill or elliptical trainer; for others, it will be a walk or jog outdoors to get away from it all; and for others, it will be a bit of stretching or yoga at bedtime. But don't let exercise add to your stress. If you hit a truly overwhelming patch, you can take a few days off without losing your edge.

Baseball legend Yogi Berra got it right when he said exercise is 90% physical — and the other half is mental.

4. Exercise for competition

To stay well, exercise for health fitness. To hit your peak for road running, racquet sports, basketball, biking or any other competitive sport, work out for aerobic fitness. That means boosting your heart rate to 70% to 85% of its maximum and holding it there for 20 to 60 minutes. If you're like most of us, you'll have to build up slowly. Be sure to warm up before and cool down after aerobics when you work this hard. You'll also benefit from stretching and strength training. If you're really going for the gold, do interval training or speed drills.

It's a lot to ask of your body, particularly as you get older. And because intense exercise is more likely to cause injuries than moderate exercise, it's particularly important for competitive athletes to listen to their bodies and react promptly to signals of distress.

Aerobic exercise has done a lot of good for many people. But because it is demanding, it has discouraged many others from exercising at all. That's why everyone should exercise for health fitness, but only the motivated and conditioned among us can set high-level aerobic fitness as a realistic goal.

5. Exercise for appearance

Weight loss is the most common exercise goal. You can get there with the moderate exercise you need for health. But for faster, more impressive weight loss, double your goal to 300 CME points or about an hour of moderate exercise a day. It sounds like a lot, but remember that you can break it into chunks. Remember, too, that the little things you can build into your daily routine really help, such as climbing stairs and walking for transportation. And to really make progress, cut down on the calories you consume as you boost the calories you burn with exercise.

Sorry to say, you can't selectively shed fat from your belly, butt or thighs. But you can use calisthenics and strength training to firm up your muscles, which will make you look thinner and better.

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Exercise Your Options

So how much exercise do you need? Just enough to meet your goals. Make health fitness your first priority. Remember to get a check-up before you start a new exercise program. Choose the activities that best fit your schedule, your budget, your abilities and your taste. Construct a balanced program by adding the weight training, stretching and balance exercises that you need. Start slowly, build up gradually, and — above all — stick with it. As Yogi might have said, exercise is half ability and 90% persistence.

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Harvey B. Simon, M.D. is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Health Sciences Technology Faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the founding editor of the Harvard Men's Health Watch newsletter and author of six consumer health books, including The Harvard Medical School Guide to Men's Health (Simon and Schuster, 2002) and The No Sweat Exercise Plan, Lose Weight, Get Healthy and Live Longer (McGraw-Hill, 2006). Dr. Simon practices at the Massachusetts General Hospital; he received the London Prize for Excellence in Teaching from Harvard and MIT.

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