How much exercise is enough?

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Last Friday I was having breakfast with colleagues in hotel in the southwest of England. We were half way through teaching a wellness and work-life balance course to some delegates from Central and Eastern Europe. A newspaper was in evidence, and its front page warned us that, according to new recommendations, we need to exercise harder than traditionally advised if we want to get significant health benefits. ‘Vigorous’ exercise (as well as moderate exercise) is now advised, along with two weight training sessions a week.

I was discussing these new recommendations with my friend whose primary role on the course I was teaching is to explain the value of exercise and help dissolve some of the barriers we can put up to being active. Our hearts sank reading the new recommendations, to be honest: even if the recommendations are correct, we reckoned they are unlikely to motivate individuals to take more exercise. In fact, quite the opposite.

Also, the fact remains that there is evidence that health benefits can come from exercise that does not need to take too much time [1] or effort [2]. I was particularly interested to read a very recently published study which assessed the effects of walking in a group of sedentary men and women aged 40-61 [3]. Some of these individuals were instructed to walk briskly for a total of 30 minutes, three times a week. Others were instructed to walk briskly for a total of 30 minutes, five times a week. While others were not given any instructions, and therefore acted as a ‘control’ group. Individuals could break down the 30 minutes into periods of no less than 10 minutes. The research was conducted over a 12-week period.

The researchers involved in this study, based in Belfast, Northern Ireland, assessed the participants with a number of measurements which included blood pressure, waist and hip circumference, and functional capacity (fitness test). Systolic blood pressure (the higher value of the blood pressure measurement) fell significantly in both the three and five times a week walkers (systolic blood pressure fell by 5 and 6 points respectively). Also the diastolic pressure fell significantly in the five times a week group (an average drop of 3.4 points).

These were not the only benefits either. Waist and hip circumference fell significantly in the three times a week group (2.6 and 2.4 cm respectively) and in the five times a week group too (2.5 and 2.2 cm respectively). Plus, functional capacity (fitness) increased in both groups too.

The authors of this study conclude that: This study provides evidence of benefit from exercising at a level below that currently recommended in healthy sedentary adults. Because brisk walking isn’t generally too daunting, and is also an activity that is within the reach of almost all of us, I reckon that the results of this study will prove a more powerful motivator than the ‘no pain, no gain’ message that has recently done the rounds.


1. ‘Keeping fit’ can take much less time than we might imagine

2. Research highlights the potential health benefits of walking

3. Tully MA, et al. Randomised controlled trial of home-based walking programmes at and below current recommended levels of exercise in sedentary adults. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2007;61(9):778-783.

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Walking versus running

I recently read an interesting editorial in the Journal of American College of Cardiology about the relative benefits of walking and running [1]. The editorial

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