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Health Benefits of Exercise


I don't really like to exercise that much.  What is the bare minimum that I can do and still improve my health?


Research has shown that any amount of exercise will improve your health.  However, the health benefits of exercise are typically gained in a linear-type progression up to a state of moderate fitness.  Beyond this point, gains tend to slow and can eventually drop off due to over-training (refer to Figure 1).

Figure 1.  The change in health benefit with increased physical fitness.

A sedentary person can improve his or her health by performing small amounts of exercise; a little bit is better than none!  However, such improvements would only be small compared to the potential health benefits gained by a quality exercise program.  The following recommendations are designed to optimize protection against degenerative diseases, and increase both longevity and quality of life.

Cardiorespiratory and Muscular Endurance

When you exercise large muscle groups with repeated contractions for 30 min or more, and do this at least 3 times/week, you are developing endurance fitness.  When performed at certain durations, intensities, and frequencies, endurance exercise can improve many of the main risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, such as type II diabetes, high blood cholesterol, obesity and high blood pressure.  Such exercise can also aid in maintaining bone integrity, protect against several forms of cancer, and prevent/treat depression.  A wealth of research shows that the decreased risk resulting from such health benefits is proportional to the volume (time and frequency) and quality (intensity) of the exercise.  Thus, progressing from being sedentary to minimally active will improve health, but additional health benefits will occur with continued improvements in physical fitness.

The current recommendation is to maintain moderate intensity activity for at least 30 min, 5 times or more per week OR maintain vigorous intensity activity for at least 20 min, 3 times or more per week.  Moderate intensity is technically defined by an intensity that utilizes between 3.7 - 7.0 kcal per minute whereas vigorous intensity is defined as utilizing greater than 7.0 kcal per minute.  Examples of moderate intensity activities would be recreational swimming or bicycling.  Examples of vigorous intensity would be bicycle riding uphill or running.  A good indicator of intensity is the "talk test".  If you can carry on a conversation while engaged in the activity but are working too hard to sing, then you are probably working at a moderate intensity.  If you are out-of-breath and find talking difficult, you have moved into a vigorous intensity.

Muscular Strength

Strength training has proven benefits in maintaining bone density, preventing injury, and making daily activities easier.  The minimum requirements for strength training are simple.  You need to perform 1 set of 10 to 15 repetitions to near muscle failure for each major muscle group including the anterior, posterior, upper and lower regions of the body.  These resistance exercises should be performed 2 times/week.  However, performing resistance training of good to high quality once per week will also promote strength gains in previously untrained individuals.


Although minimal amounts of exercise can offer small health benefits, performing the following amounts of exercise will enable you to achieve the level of physical fitness that is required to reap the full spectrum of significant health benefits.  Start slowly and progress up to the following:

  • 5 times or more per week, 30 minutes or more of moderate endurance exercise OR 3 times or more per week, 20 minutes or more of vigorous exercise

  • 2 times per week, 1 set of 10 to 15 repetitions each for a range of exercises targeting all major muscle groups

Seek guidance from an exercise specialist or a health care professional if needed.

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Our expert, Dr. Sharon E. Griffin, holds a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in the areas of exercise science/physiology.  She also holds a second M.S. degree in Nutrition and is a licensed nutritionist and an ACSM certified health and fitness instructor.

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