March 21, 2017

Is 20 Minutes of Exercise Enough?

The experts at UW Health's Fitness Center offer tips to help you stay active and healthy no matter your age. This month they explore the question of whether 20 minutes of exercise a day is really enough to make a difference.

Most will agree that there just isn't enough time in our day. Even though advances in technology may (or may not) have made aspects of daily life simpler or easier, they certainly haven't made the day any longer. Our time-commitment "plates" are more filled than ever. The decades-old challenge of finding time to exercise is as real now as it has ever been.

So, is 20 minutes of exercise better than nothing? Yes, yes, and YES!

That is the simple answer (and maybe the only answer you're looking for here). If it helps get you up and moving - then please exercise for 20 minutes.

Recommendations of the amount and types of exercise are published frequently. They range from very specific (e.g. “X number of days a week for Y number of minutes at Z intensity”) to the much more general (e.g. “get physical activity on most, if not all, days”). Typically, there is scientific rationale for these recommendations. But, like so many recommendations, there is not a ”one size fits all” or “best” recommendation.

Exercise Recommendations Aren't One Size Fits All

Many exercise scientists have tried to study the question of the optimal amount of exercise a person needs. The problem is, this question is far from simple.

Exercise has hundreds of benefits. From blood pressure control to weight management and blood glucose control to improved sleep, - the list goes on and on. Achieving a specific benefit from exercise depends on a confluence of factors including the:

  1. Type of exercise (mode)

  2. Frequency of exercise (how often)

  3. Intensity of exercise (how hard)

  4. Duration of exercise (how long)

Notice that the duration (how long) of your exercise is but only one variable influencing how much you may benefit. Further complicating any recommendation is the reality that every individual has their own unique responses to exercise training.

Hence, it is impossible to zero in on one absolute recommendation for “how much” exercise someone should get.

But the good news is that benefits from exercise are NOT absolute, “all or nothing” achievements. Even though any given exercise recommendation will have a duration component (i.e. how many minutes or how long), this DOESN’T mean that exercise performed in quantities less than this recommended amount is without benefit.

Professional exercise scientists know that most of the benefits of exercising are incremental or dose dependent. What does that mean? Quite simply put, the more exercise a person is able to perform the greater the benefit he/she will likely achieve.

Is 20 Minutes a Day Better Than Nothing?

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that adults should accumulate at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity 5 days per week OR engage in 20-minutes of vigorous activity 3 days per week.

Here are some examples of activities meeting these moderate or vigorous criteria:

Moderate (at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity 5 days/wk)

  • Walking briskly (3-4 mph)

  • Bicycling for pleasure

  • Swimming (moderate effort)

  • Golf (pulling cart or carrying clubs)

  • Paddle sports (canoeing, kayaking - leisurely)

  • Yard work (mowing, etc.)

Vigorous (at least 20 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity 3 days/wk)

  • Walking briskly (>= 4 mph or up hill)

  • Running or jogging

  • Bicycling for exercise (>= 10 mph)

  • Swimming (more intense effort)

  • Paddle sports (more vigorously)

  • Competitive continuous sports (basketball, etc.)

ACSM further clarifies by specifying that activity must be at least 10 minutes in duration. So whatever you choose to do, do it for at least that long!

Our goal for this discussion is to educate and encourage you to get moving! Whether it’s in 10 minute, 20 minute, or longer chunks, any exercise you do is a building block leading to a fitter, healthier you.

Experienced fitness professionals understand that developing active lifestyle habits/behaviors (i.e. exercising regularly) takes time, flexibility, and effort. The pathway to improved fitness is usually filled with a combination of successes and setbacks. However, be aware that as your fitness improves a fortunate and timely transition usually coincides: you will freely choose to participate in more physical activities. Having the option to, and then freely choosing more physical activities in your day may be the greatest benefit of improved fitness.

Yes, 20 minutes of exercise is better than nothing. Any and every bout of physical activity/exercise contributes to a fitter, healthier - and, very likely, happier - you!

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