The majority of U.S. adults do not meet the weekly, minimum exercise routines (150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous) as recommended by the American Heart Association, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and most physicians and fitness experts.
But does meeting these recommendations regularly, or exceeding them, actually help people live longer? The answer is a resounding “yes,” according to a major new study published in the journal JAMA Network Open . The results were so strong in favor of exercise that researchers went as far as suggesting that a sedentary lifestyle can be worse for your health than smoking, diabetes and heart disease.
This study is unique because of the number of people studied and because researchers were not basing their findings on individuals’ self-reporting their exercise, like most previous studies have done to confirm the benefits of exercise.
The conclusion of the new study: Those who led a sedentary lifestyle were at a 500 percent higher chance of premature death, compared to those who are extremely fit. Compared to patients who simply meet the minimum-exercise recommendations and are fit, those who did not exercise showed a 390 percent higher risk of premature death.
The biggest takeaway from the study is that anyone, no matter what age, can start walking, or running, to live a longer and healthier life. Extreme aerobic fitness, meaning that participants exceeded the minimum-exercise recommendations, was linked to the greatest benefit, particularly in older patients (70 and older) and in those with hypertension (high blood pressure), the new study found.
Anyone can start an exercise program, as long as they have the go-ahead from their doctor and they start at the right level of intensity, says Brian Betancourt, exercise physiologist at Baptist Health South Florida.
“Your level of fitness is not the same as mine or that of someone else,” says Mr. Betancourt. “It’s about what you’re capable of doing and what’s going to be challenging to you. You never want to be doing an exercise that is painful. If you have pain, you’re either doing too much or you’re doing it wrong. It should feel challenging, and you’ll see that you can progress little by little and that’s going to improve your overall health.”
As part of the new study, researchers studied 122,007 patients who underwent exercise treadmill testing between January 1, 1991 and December 31, 2014. A treadmill test, also known as a stress test, is usually prescribed by a cardiologist while heart rhythm, blood pressure, and possible symptoms are monitored. The test is modified while the patient is walking or running to determine what the patient can tolerate and how long he or she can stay on the treadmill before having to stop. It is considered an ideal way to measure fitness.
The researchers then measured all causes of mortality linked to the benefits of exercise and fitness, but also factoring in age, sex, height, weight, BMI, medications and other illnesses. The study’s authors concluded “that increased cardio-respiratory fitness was directly associated with reduced long-term mortality, with no limit on the positive effects of aerobic fitness,” according to a statement by the Cleveland Clinic, which conducted the study.
How Much Exercise Do You Need?
The American Heart Association  recommends:
- For overall cardiovascular health: At least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least five days per week for a total of 150 minutes. OR: At least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least three days per week for a total of 75 minutes; or a combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.
- Moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity: At least two days per week for additional health benefits.
- For lowering blood pressure and cholesterol: An average 40 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity three or four times per week.
For Older Adults:
If you’re 65 years of age or older, are generally fit, and have no limiting health conditions you can follow these guidelines, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention :
- Two hours and 30 minutes (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (i.e., brisk walking) every week and;
- Muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms).
Also acceptable, the CDC recommends, is an equivalent mix of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, along with muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms).