30 minutes a day? Four times a week? Here’s a guide to the amount of exercise you need to do to stay healthy.

Thanks to the rapid advances in science and medicine the answers to the questions surrounding health and exercise are clearer than ever. There’s no doubt that frequency and intensity of exercise are directly related to long term health benefits, but for many people the key issue is what kind of exercise should I do and how much?

30 minutes of exercise a day is good for you

In the UK the recommendation from the government and the British Heart Foundation is for 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week for adults who fall into the 19-64 years of age category. However there are various forms that this exercise can take and the UK’s National Health Service breaks that down into 3 sections. Either 150 minutes or two and half hours of moderate intensity aerobic activity a week plus muscle strengthening activities on 2 days or; 75 minutes a week of vigorous intensity aerobic exercise plus muscle strengthening on 2 days or; a 90 minute mixture of moderate and vigorous intensity plus muscle strengthening activities.

Moderate and vigorous aerobic activity

The government defines moderate intensity exercise as something that elevates the heart rate, makes the body temperature rise and makes you breathe more heavily. This would include activities like fast walking, swimming , ice skating and some forms of dancing. Vigorous intensity exercise includes activities like football, rugby, aerobics, running, cycling/spinning (up hills or fast), tennis, dancing, squash and boxing/martial arts. If you are doing these things vigorously, they should make you breathe harder, give you a significantly higher heart rate and make conversation difficult.

Muscle strengthening exercises should involve working major muscle groups like the arms, leg, chest, abdomen, back and shoulders and all of that can be done with weight training, sit ups, press ups, circuit training and yoga. If you follow the recommended advice the health benefits are certainly huge. The risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and depression is reduced the more active you are, although diet and the amount of calories consumed is a massive part of the healthy equation.

In the USA The Institute of Medicine and The American Council on Exercise recommend at least an hour of moderate intense physical activity a day. However it’s worth bearing in mind that the USA’s definition of moderate intense physical activity takes into account calorie burning activities such as housework, ironing, stair-climbing and gentle walking and swimming, which would all be regarded as part of your hour a day.

Benefits of HIIT 

Part of the equation in terms of what exercise you should do is informed by your lifestyle and its impact on the amount of time available for exercise. That in turn will dictate your choice of activity and the duration and intensity of your workout. High intensity interval training (HIIT) is becoming increasingly popular because of its convenience and health benefits. 

The workouts can vary in duration from intervals of only 20 seconds up to around 7-8 minutes with recovery periods in between each interval.

The workouts can vary in duration from intervals of only 20 seconds up to around 7-8 minutes with recovery periods in between each interval. The idea is that you work at your maximal heart rate for that interval, which means you are aiming to get your heart rate up to between 80-95 per cent of capacity. As well as the general heart, lung and well being benefits, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, HIIT also increases aerobic and anaerobic fitness, provides improved cholesterol levels, boosts insulin sensitivity and offers an improvement in levels of abdominal fat.

Studies have also shown that HIIT, which can take the form of circuit training, sprints, cycle sprints and weights, offers a superior sustained calorie burn due to excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) which helps burns fat. This makes it even more attractive compared to more conventional forms of exercise and add to that the convenience factor of getting the required health benefits from something that only requires half of the time and you can see why HIIT is one of the more appealing fitness fads for time-pressured people. 

According to exercise physiologist Gary O’Donovan, vigorous exercise is the way forward to getting your body fit and/or trying to lose weight. He suggests that: “Health, fitness and performance are all maximized by working harder — which isn't to say that you won't benefit from lighter exercise, just that you will benefit more if you work harder during your fitness sessions.”

Ironically though to get to the stage where you can really benefit from HIIT you need to be fit enough to sustain that work rate and you can only achieve that kind of fitness from regular, longer moderate intensity aerobic workouts! Being as active as possible for as long as possible really is the best way to sustain a healthy lifestyle and enhance your life expectancy. Any exercise you can get for as long as possible whenever you can is always welcome. Only you can know what is realistic in terms of your own lifestyle, but the closer you get to the recommendations in terms of frequency and intensity of exercise, the chances are, the healthier you will be.

Government recommendations for exercise will vary from country to country. Therefore if you want to find out the specific recommendations for your location, visit the health section of your government's website.