"An hour of exercise a day needed to stay slim!" If you paid any attention to the morning shows or news last week, you probably heard a similar proclamation. It's a catchy headline, I'll admit. But how true is it?

April 01, 2010

(Istockphoto)

By Su Reid-St. John
"An hour of daily exercise needed to stay slim!" If you paid any attention to the morning shows or news last week, you probably heard a similar proclamation. It's a catchy headline, I'll admit. But how true is it?

All the hoopla is centered around a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It looked at more than 34,000 middle-aged women and found that the ones who were able to maintain their weight over a 13-year period averaged about 60 minutes a day of moderate-intensity exercise—which may make you want to just toss your sneakers into a corner and give up. Who has that kind of time? (Not me.) Luckily, it's not as bad as it sounds.

Here's the thing: The study didn't look at "hours" the way we think of them; instead, it looked at MET hours. (MET stands for "metabolic equivalent," in case you're wondering.) Roughly translated, one MET is the amount of energy your body expends when you hang out on the sofa for an hour. Spend that hour walking at a moderate pace and you expend a little over 3 METs. Turn that into a 6 mph run and it equals 10 METs. The more intense your activity, the higher the METs. Make sense?

In the study, those who managed to stay slim expended at least 21 MET hours per week. Now if you're walking at a moderate pace, yeah, that equals about an hour per day. But if you're willing to up the intensity a bit, or maybe even do something other than walking, you can shave your time down substantially.

Next page: 11 (fun!) ways to boost your intensity

Sound good? OK, then, here are a bunch of ideas for weekly workouts that take way less than an hour per day (each bullet equals a weekly total of around 21 METs):

  • Do two 50-minute inline skating sessions.
  • Ride your bike at a moderate pace for 40 minutes four times—or take two hour-long spinning classes.
  • Play three 60-minute tennis games.
  • Head out for a 3-1/2 hour hike on the weekend (add some hills and be done in 3 hours).
  • Swim laps at a moderate pace for an hour three times—or swim vigorously for the same length of time twice.
  • Take two hour-long kickboxing classes.
  • Play games like dodgeball and hopscotch with your kids for about an hour four times.
  • Swing dance for 70 minutes four times.
  • Sweat through three 50-minute step classes.
  • Push your little one around briskly in a stroller for 50 minutes five times.
  • Run at 6 mph for 42 minutes three times.

That seems a lot more doable, right? And keep in mind, those options don't even take into account all the other activity you do during the day, like taking the stairs and walking around the grocery store. (Every little bit counts.)

One last thing: No matter how many studies come out proclaiming that you have to do X amount of physical activity per day or week to keep from gaining weight, they don't negate your own experience. If you've been chugging along doing 30 minutes of exercise on most days (the standard rec to keep your body healthy) and your weight is stable (congrats!), there's no need to panic. Sure, as you get older and your metabolism begins to slow down, you'll need to increase your activity. But that can happen gradually, and in a way that actually fits into your busy life. So what it comes down to is this: Listen to your body, not the hype.


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