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New Study Pinpoints How Much Exercise We Need to Live Longer

The current physical activity guidelines recommend a minimum of 150-300 minutes per week of moderate physical activity (MPA), 75-150 minutes per week of vigorous physical activity (VPA), or an equivalent combination of MPA and VPA.

The current guidelines (Piercy et al., 2018) also recommend doing full-body strength-training workouts twice a week.

A recent analysis of data from 116,221 adults who participated in two longitudinal studies conducted over 30 years (1988–2018) found that people who performed double—or up to four times—the minimum recommended dose of moderate or vigorous physical activity lived longer.

This analysis (Lee et al., 2022) suggests that 300-600 min/wk of moderate physical activity or 150-300 min/wk of vigorous exercise significantly reduces all-cause mortality risk.

These findings were published on July 25 in the American Heart Association’s peer-reviewed journal Circulation.

“The nearly maximum association with lower mortality was achieved by performing 150 to 300 min/wk of long-term leisure-time VPA, 300 to 600 min/wk of long-term leisure-time MPA, or an equivalent combination of both,” the authors explain.

The Dividing Line Between Moderate and Vigorous Exercise Is ≥6 METs

For this analysis, first author Donghoon Lee of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and colleagues define vigorous exercise as any activity that uses more than six METs of energy.

A Metabolic Equivalent Task (MET) unit gauges the amount of energy required to perform different tasks or physical activities at varying intensities.

For example, sitting in a chair uses one MET, walking at three miles per hour (mph) uses about four METs, and slow jogging uses about six METs.

The cardiorespiratory transition from walking to jogging is a perfect example of how moderate-intensity physical activity morphs into vigorous aerobic exercise as indexed by METs.

For example, walking slower than 3.5 mph typically uses fewer than six METs.

However, if you walk at a brisk pace that’s faster than 3.5 mph or break into a jog as your speed increases to 4+ mph, you’ll cross the threshold from moderate to vigorous cardio and start using ≥6 METs.

150-600 Minutes of Weekly Physical Activity Lowers All-Cause Mortality

Below are some statistics from the latest (2022) analysis by Lee et al.:

  • Participants who followed current guidelines and did 150-300 min/wk of moderate physical activity (MPA) had a 20 to 21 percent lower risk of death from all causes.
  • Participants who followed current guidelines and did 75-150 min/wk of vigorous physical activity (VPA) had a 19 percent lower risk of death from all causes.
  • Participants who performed 300-600 min/wk of MPA (two to four times above current guidelines) had a 26 to 31 percent lower risk of mortality from all causes.
  • Participants who performed 150-300 min/wk of VPA (two to four times above current guidelines) had a 21 to 23 percent lower risk of death from all causes.

600 Minutes of Weekly Cardio Isn’t Harmful, But Benefits Stop After 10 hrs/wk

Previous studies have suggested that, over time, high-intensity endurance training and competition —such as running marathons, competing in Ironman triathlons (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run), or doing ultra-endurance bicycle races—may increase someone’s risk of adverse cardiovascular events.

However, the latest peer-reviewed analysis (2022) found that doing two to four times more than the recommended weekly exercise guidelines doesn’t increase someone’s risk of atrial fibrillation, coronary artery calcification, myocardial fibrosis, or sudden cardiac death.

“This finding may reduce the concerns around the potentially harmful effect of engaging in high levels of physical activity observed in several previous studies,” Lee said in a July 2022 news release.

Notably, engaging in more than 300 minutes/week (5 hours) of vigorous physical activity or more than 600 minutes/week (10 hours) of moderate-intensity physical activity doesn’t appear to provide a bigger reduction in all-cause mortality death risk.

“No harmful cardiovascular health effects were found among the adults who reported engaging in more than four times the recommended minimum activity levels,” the authors note.

But, they add a caveat: “However, among those who reported ≥300 min/wk of long-term leisure-time MPA, additional leisure-time VPA did not appear to be associated with lower mortality beyond MPA.”

Current Exercise Guidelines Are in the Right Ballpark, But Doing More Weekly Activity May Provide Extra Life-Extending Benefits

“Our study provides evidence to guide individuals to choose the right amount and intensity of physical activity over their lifetime to maintain their overall health,” Lee concludes.

“Our findings support the current national physical activity guidelines and further suggest that the maximum benefits may be achieved by performing medium to high levels of either moderate or vigorous activity or a combination.”

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