How to improve your health with physical activity

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How much exercise is enough?  Most people know that regular physical activity is good for health, but many aren’t  sure what sort of exercise they should do, or how much.  The physical activity guidelines quoted by health departments and charities originate from the World Health Organisation.  You can see a summary of these below or read them in full here.  This post will help you to work out a plan to achieve the recommended amount of aerobic activity for health.

WHO minimum guidelines for aerobic physical activity for adults aged 18-64

Adults aged 18–64 years should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week, or do at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity.

What do moderate intensity and vigorous intensity mean?

Exercise intensity can be assessed by heart rate (see below), but as a rough guide:

Moderate intensity physical activity
This would be anything which you need to put a bit of energy into and makes you a bit warmer.  This can be cleaning the house or car, gardening or walking at a normal pace, for example.

Vigorous exercise
This means activities in which you get very warm, find it more difficult to hold a conversation and may be aware of your heart beating.

Monitoring your heart rate

You can get a better idea of how hard you’re working by checking your pulse rate.  It’s best if you’ve got a monitor to do this, because taking your pulse manually is tricky while you’re exercising.  (Stopping suddenly to take it isn’t a good idea if you’re working hard, because you should always cool down gradually.)

Once you know what your heart rate was while you were exercising, you can work out your exercise intensity.  First, you need to work out your maximum possible heart rate. To do this, subtract your age from 220.

For example, if you are 40 your maximum heart rate will be 220 – 40 = 180.

Now you need to work out what the heart rate you recorded is as a percentage of your maximum.

For example, if you recorded a heart rate of 130bpm

Exercise heart rate as a % of maximum = 130/180 x 100% = 72%

This falls just inside the category of vigorous exercise:

  • Heart rates 50-70% of maximum are moderate intensity exercise
  • Heart rates 70-85% of maximum are vigorous exercise
  • Above 85% is extremely high intensity. You should only work out at this level if you are already very fit

Combining moderate and vigorous physical activity

As stated above, the guidelines are 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity.  Most people are already doing some minutes of moderate activity in their daily lives.  The first thing to do is to work out how many minutes you currently do.  Maybe you do housework, gardening, walk the dog or walk to the bus stop for example. Once you’ve worked this out, you can see how many more minutes of activity you need to do. Then you can decide whether you want to do more moderate activity, add some vigorous activity, or do a bit of both.  The table below shows how to combine minutes of moderate and vigorous activity to make up the total  minutes needed for good health.

Minutes of physical activity guidelines

Safety note for vigorous physical activity

The main drawback with vigorous exercise is that you need to warm up and cool down.  It’s important to spend a few minutes warming up to prepare the joints and muscles for the vigorous movements to come. Taking a few minutes to cool down is important too, because stopping vigorous exercise suddenly can cause what is known as blood pooling.  The muscles play a key role in returning blood to the heart and if they stop working suddenly, blood may be pumped away from the heart faster than it comes back.  This can cause dizziness or even fainting.

So, if you are going to do a 15 minute exercise session, you will need to allow at least 5 minutes of this for warm up and cool down.  However, these minutes will count as moderate exercise.

A sample plan to achieve the guidelines

This is a sample plan for someone who does an hour of household chores per week, that count as moderate physical activity. (This would be, for example, vacuum cleaning, mopping, bath cleaning – tasks such as cooking and washing dishes aren’t energetic enough to count.)

So, we already have 60 minutes of moderate activity from chores.

Now we need to decide whether to add some vigorous activity or to make all the minutes up with moderate activity.  It’s good to add in a bit of vigorous exercise, so we’ll add 2 x 15 – see below for some examples of what this could be.  But remember, we also need to add 5 minutes for warm-up and cool down to each session.  These count as moderate activity, so this also gives us another 10 minutes of moderate activity.

We now have:

  • 60 minutes of moderate activity from chores
  • 30 minutes of vigorous activity
  • 10 minutes of moderate activity from warm up and cool down

The total minutes of moderate activity now comes to 70.  From the table, we can see that with 30 minutes of vigorous exercise, we need 90 minutes of moderate exercise.  So we need another 20 minutes. This can be achieved by adding a 20 minute walk at normal walking pace.

The complete plan is therefore:

  • 60 minutes of moderate activity from chores
  • 30 minutes of vigorous activity
  • 10 minutes of moderate activity from warm up and cool down
  • 20 minutes of moderate activity from a walk at normal pace


What counts as vigorous exercise?

The sort of activities you need to be doing for aerobic fitness are ones which increase your heart rate, breathing rate and body temperature.  However, they need to be at a level that you can keep up for the whole workout.  Examples of suitable activities are:

  • Fast walking
  • Running
  • Rope skipping
  • Rebounder
  • Cycling
  • Step aerobics

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How much exercise is enough? An explanation of the WHO guidelines for physical activity and how to meet the minimum requirements #wellbeing #healthylifestyle


Find out more about the health benefits of exercise:

Why exercise is good for heart healthBenefits of walking for fitness

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