Maximizing the health benefits of exercise

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The benefits of exercise have long been established as helpful for overall health. Exercise can be varied, ranging from walking and running to swimming, biking, yoga, strength training, or martial arts to name just a few activities.

When enough time is spent performing any of these activities, one can prevent or manage health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, obesity or arthritis. Staying active can also lower the risk of stroke, depression and anxiety.

Remarkably, exercise may improve mood, boost energy levels, and even promote better sleep. Lastly, exercise stimulates proteins and other compounds that improve brain function, strengthen muscles and bones as we age, and lower the risk of some cancers.

To maximize the health benefits of exercise, the government recommends adults should engage in any of the above activities for the times listed and at the level of intensity listed below:

  • Two and a half to five hours (150 minutes to 300 minutes) a week of moderate physical activity; or
  • One hour and 15 minutes to two and a half hours (75 minutes to 150 minutes) a week of vigorous physical activity.

You may combine moderate and vigorous aerobic activities to achieve the desired time spent exercising. Aerobic activities are those that you can sustain for more than a few minutes.  Some would describe the sensation during moderate aerobic activity as being warm and slightly out of breath, but you can talk.

Vigorous aerobic activity feels challenging, breathing is deep and rapid, sweating can be profuse, and you can’t say more than a few words. In general, moderate aerobic activity means working at between 60-75% of your maximum target heart rate, and vigorous aerobic activity means working between 75-85% of maximum heart rate. Age can be used as a guideline for what the target heart rate should be.

You can track your heart rate with a fitness tracker such as a watch or fitness monitor. A simple means of obtaining heart rate is by taking your pulse (number of beats felt) at the wrist or neck for 15 seconds and multiplying that number by four. This provides beats per minute seen in the chart, which is then multiplied by 2/3 or 3/4 depending on the activity level goal.

It’s preferable to spread aerobic activity throughout the week. Additional health benefits are gained by engaging in physical activity beyond the equivalent of 300 minutes (five hours) of moderate or vigorous physical activity for the week. For adults, any activity that involves all major muscle groups on two or more days a week provides additional health benefits like bone and muscle strengthening.

There is data that demonstrates that the level of intensity at which you exercise, not the amount of time you exercise, is what is most effective in creating positive health benefits. This kind of training is known as high-intensity training and warrants a separate discussion.

Remember to check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program, especially if you have any concerns about your fitness, haven’t exercised for a long time, or have chronic health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes or arthritis. The duration of exercise, the heart rate level, or the intensity of movement may need to be adjusted depending on one’s current health.

Sean J. Ennevor, M.D. graduated with a B.A.S. in biology and economics from Stanford University, and as a Dean’s Scholar from UCLA School of Medicine where he received his MD. He completed his medical residency and fellowship in anesthesiology at Yale University, where he was chief resident and on staff. He practiced medicine in the Twin Cities for over 14 years, and presently serves as an advisor and investor for medical technology companies throughout the country.