How much exercise is enough?

Last Friday I was having breakfast with colleagues in hotel in the southwest of England. We were half way through teaching a wellness and work-life balance course to some delegates from Central and Eastern Europe. A newspaper was in evidence, and its front page warned us that, according to new recommendations, we need to exercise harder than traditionally advised if we want to get significant health benefits. ‘Vigorous’ exercise (as well as moderate exercise) is now advised, along with two weight training sessions a week.

I was discussing these new recommendations with my friend whose primary role on the course I was teaching is to explain the value of exercise and help dissolve some of the barriers we can put up to being active. Our hearts sank reading the new recommendations, to be honest: even if the recommendations are correct, we reckoned they are unlikely to motivate individuals to take more exercise. In fact, quite the opposite.

Also, the fact remains that there is evidence that health benefits can come from exercise that does not need to take too much time [1] or effort [2]. I was particularly interested to read a very recently published study which assessed the effects of walking in a group of sedentary men and women aged 40-61 [3]. Some of these individuals were instructed to walk briskly for a total of 30 minutes, three times a week. Others were instructed to walk briskly for a total of 30 minutes, five times a week. While others were not given any instructions, and therefore acted as a ‘control’ group. Individuals could break down the 30 minutes into periods of no less than 10 minutes. The research was conducted over a 12-week period.

The researchers involved in this study, based in Belfast, Northern Ireland, assessed the participants with a number of measurements which included blood pressure, waist and hip circumference, and functional capacity (fitness test). Systolic blood pressure (the higher value of the blood pressure measurement) fell significantly in both the three and five times a week walkers (systolic blood pressure fell by 5 and 6 points respectively). Also the diastolic pressure fell significantly in the five times a week group (an average drop of 3.4 points).

These were not the only benefits either. Waist and hip circumference fell significantly in the three times a week group (2.6 and 2.4 cm respectively) and in the five times a week group too (2.5 and 2.2 cm respectively). Plus, functional capacity (fitness) increased in both groups too.

The authors of this study conclude that: This study provides evidence of benefit from exercising at a level below that currently recommended in healthy sedentary adults. Because brisk walking isn’t generally too daunting, and is also an activity that is within the reach of almost all of us, I reckon that the results of this study will prove a more powerful motivator than the ‘no pain, no gain’ message that has recently done the rounds.


1. ‘Keeping fit’ can take much less time than we might imagine

2. Research highlights the potential health benefits of walking

3. Tully MA, et al. Randomised controlled trial of home-based walking programmes at and below current recommended levels of exercise in sedentary adults. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2007;61(9):778-783.

4 Responses to How much exercise is enough?

  1. Janet Alton MNIMH 28 August 2007 at 11:58 am #

    While walking is great exercise, large numbers of my middle-aged to older patients have arthritic knees and hips which effectively prevent them walking far. And yet these are the ones most likely to be overweight, because they’re getting no exercise! What kind of exercise can be recommended for these people?

  2. Hilda Glickman 4 September 2007 at 12:12 am #

    Hi, I suppose you already know that swimming does not put as much pressure on joints, but I suppose that not everyone has access to a pool or can swim. I’m no expert but buying the best trainers and walking for very short bursts of time might help. Treating the arthritis via a nutritionist could be a good idea. I can’t imagine that not taking any exercise at all would be a good idea.

  3. A Zammit 23 September 2007 at 12:10 pm #

    over two and a half years ago I weighed 160kgs. Today I managed to get to 100kgs. I am very satisfied with my progress so far and what I managed to achieve.

    However, I got stuck at this point. I cannot get past this mark and am currently feeling nervous about this. I have been stuck at 100kgs for over 3 months now. I go regularly to the gym (cardio and resistance training), long walks and believe I eat a healthy diet.

    I want to try to understand what I am doing wrong. Is it that I am not training well or not doing enough? I want to loose 20kgs more but somehow I am seeing this target much more difficult than when I started. I watch ‘the biggest looser’ on TV and remain amazed with the participants progress in such a short period of time.

  4. Bobs your uncle 13 October 2007 at 4:27 am #

    This is interesting but when do you know how much exercise you need to maintain your fitness thats what i want to know.

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