Five minutes or 150 minutes? Cardio or strength training? High-impact to strengthen the skeleton or low-impact to protect it? There’s plenty of advice out there on how much and how best to exercise, yet it’s often conflicting. We went to the experts to help sort it all out and find out what you really need.

By Gretchen Reynolds
June 11, 2020
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Spoiler alert! There is no one-size-fits-all answer to how much exercise is “enough.” Talk to scientists who study the topic, and their guidance is simple: Do something active, as often as you can. Any movement counts, they say, and adds up for overall health, from vacuuming to running for a train. Formal government guidelines recommend that we exercise moderately (meaning walk briskly or otherwise move at an easy-ish pace) for 30 minutes five days a week, accumulating at least 150 minutes total, or, alternatively, that we exercise vigorously—elevating our heart rates with jogging or other strenuous activity for at least 15 minutes five times a week.

Both sets of guidelines are broad and generic, but both support the idea that all movement is good. Experts across the board also agree that exercise has huge health benefits for disease control (cancer and diabetes) and for your heart, brain, mental health, energy, quality of sleep, and longevity. The pros see eye to eye on one other thing, too: A personalized workout plan is the best approach to exercise. “Think about your goals,” says Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, a physician, researcher, and board member of the American College of Sports Medicine. Some types and amounts of physical activity are better than others, she says, for certain aspects of health and well-being.

Your expectations, schedule, and fitness level all matter. If you’re trying to lose weight, for example, research published in 2019 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that intense workouts, known as HIIT (high-intensity interval training), may blunt appetite and ramp up fat burn better than gentler exercise. But experts caution against exercising only for weight loss: “Exercising to lose weight usually means disappointment,” says Timothy Church, MD, MPH, a professor at Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University who studies metabolism. Your diet is the most important factor related to weight loss. In general, exercise increases hunger, he says, so we eat more after and don’t shed many pounds.

Or consider your cartilage: If you’ve had trouble with your knees, choose activities that don’t require bearing weight, like cycling or swimming, Dr. Peeke says. But if your knees are in good shape, running may remodel joints in ways that make them healthier, studies show.

For her part, Dr. Peeke recommends targeting at least four cardio-based workouts a week, such as jogging, cycling, or fast walking, and two or more strength-based sessions, which could mean Pilates or barbells. And if you miss a workout or three, relax. Just move. Start with standing—the latest federal guidelines note that getting up and moving around, even for as little as five minutes at a time, is better for your health than not moving at all.

To help you build a routine that’s best for your goals, we’ve put together a guide to the upsides, downsides, and surprises of different types of exercise.

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Walking

If your goals are: Weight maintenance, creativity and thinking, sleep quality, happiness, metabolic health, extended life span

Benefits: Easy, accessible, effective. In studies, walkers live longer, sleep better, and are less likely to develop heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, arthritis, and depression than non-exercisers. Walking unlocks creativity, too, studies show, and boosts memory, buoys moods, and requires zero training or gear, except comfy shoes.

Downsides: It’s unlikely to help you lose weight without eating less, too, and it requires some time commitment. To get a substantial health bang from walking, experts say, plan to hoof it briskly for half an hour a day or more.

Good to know: According to a 2018 study, walking “briskly” means taking at least 100 steps per minute. Use your phone’s step-counting app to track steps; if yours come in below 100 per minute, pick up the pace.

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Running

If your goals are: Stronger heart, healthier metabolism, sturdier bones, better mood, brawnier brain, leanness

Benefits: Because it’s “vigorous” exercise, you don’t need much. Fifteen minutes or even, according to some studies, as little as five minutes a day of running gooses heart and full-body health a lot. Plus, it’s simple, low-tech, and potent. Runners may wind up with improved knee cartilage, larger brains, and lower BMIs than before they started.

Downsides: At least 50 percent of runners get hurt every year, especially newcomers. Go easy at first. And if your knees creak from past injury or arthritis, try another exercise; running could worsen joint decay.

Good to know: Plenty of apps can ease you into running. The “Couch to 5K” running program, used by many apps (like C25K), is inspiring, instructive, free, and can connect you socially to other runners. Ditto for Nike Run Club.

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Cycling

If your goals are: Joint health, stamina, leg strength, increased immunity

Benefits: Because the bike itself bears your weight, cycling is easy on joints, which is good if you have a sore back, or sore knees or hips. It also strengthens thigh muscles and glutes; enhances endurance; and, in studies of older cyclists, keeps muscles and immune systems youthful for years. Ride to and from work, and you combine exercise and transport.

Downsides: It’s not weight-bearing, so it doesn’t build bones. You’ll often share roads with cars and fumes, braving pollution and collisions. And riding requires some expertise and, of course, a bike.

Good to know: E-bikes—equipped with a small, battery-powered motor—can help you up hills and make long rides fly. But since you still have to pedal, you get a workout comparable to a brisk walk.

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Swimming

If your goals are: endurance, improved mood, injury recovery, joint health, upper-body strength

Benefits: Water buoys the body, reducing stress on joints and supporting heavy breasts, making swimming preferable to running for many women. It’s hard to overheat in water, too, even during strenuous workouts. And swimming is useful for lowering blood pressure, calming minds, and strengthening your shoulders, core, and back.

Downsides: Swimming can increase appetite more than other exercise because it does not raise body heat (the higher your body temp from exercise, the less hungry you feel). It requires access to a pool and knowing how to swim a few strokes.

Good to know: About 40 percent of adults in the U.S. can’t swim. If that number includes you, the Red Cross (redcross.org); most YMCAs (ymca.net); and many U.S. Masters Swimming clubs (usms.org), which cater to swimmers ages 25 and above, offer inexpensive learn-to-swim programs.

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Pilates/Yoga

If your goals are: Flexibility, balance, core strength, upper-body strength, reduced back pain, calm

Benefits: Pilates and yoga involve a choreography of slow, precise movements or poses (called “asanas” in yoga), together with breath control. Pilates usually also incorporates exercises on machines that target muscles in the midsection and back. In studies, both Pilates and yoga lessen back pain, improve balance, build arm and shoulder strength, soothe stressed-out minds, and amplify lower-body flexibility.

Downsides: These are not aerobic exercises. A 2016 review of yoga research concluded that moving through typical asanas was about the same as walking gently.

Good to know: “Power” and Ashtanga yoga classes tend to be more physically demanding than yoga practices such as hatha, Iyengar and Viniyoga. To find the approach best for you, sample classes and instructors.

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HIIT

If your goals are: Weight loss and control, metabolic health, endurance, time management

Benefits: Short for high-intensity interval training, HIIT workouts involve repeated quick spurts of strenuous exertion (an interval)—on a bike, treadmill, or mat—interspersed with easier exercise. Intervals can be as brief as 20 seconds, and full HIIT workouts often last less than 30 minutes, so they’re time-efficient. They’re also effective, studies show, at raising endurance, blood-sugar control, and post-exercise fat burn.

Downsides: That “high-intensity” part. During intervals, you exit your exercise comfort zone. Heart rate spikes. Breath hitches. HIIT can feel difficult. Thankfully, each interval is brief. But this kind of workout may require some coaching at first.

Good to know: New to exercise? Maybe ease into HIIT with interval walking. A 2015 Japanese study found walking fast for a few minutes, slower for a few more, and repeating five times helped people enhance their fitness, leg strength, and blood pressure.

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Weight Training

If your goals are: Strength, leanness, metabolic health, mental health, better bones

Benefits: Overall strength. In women, weight training (whether with dumbbells, machines, or body-weight exercises such as push-ups) tightens and strengthens muscles. Despite misconceptions, you won’t “bulk up.” Lifting also controls blood sugar, shrinks waist fat, and burns more calories post-workout.

Downsides: Bone benefits are real, research shows, but may demand lifting at least three times a week for a minimum of a year. Also, you need good form or you risk injuries, especially to the back. You also may require a trainer, at least at first, and, if you like weight machines, a gym membership.

Good to know: Surprising new studies suggest weight training potently reduces anxiety and depression, and also seems literally to boost brains (in rats, anyway), stimulating the creation of healthy new brain cells.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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