How Much Exercise Do You Need for Longevity?

Get-Fit Guy examines the results of two studies on how much exercise you need for optimal longevity benefits. Plus, learn how much of that exercise should be moderate intensity and how much should be vigorous for even bigger long life potential.

Ben Greenfield
3-minute read
Episode #231

As the Get-Fit Guy, I’m on a constant quest to figure out the sweet spot of exercise for you, especially when it comes to discovering the ultimate balance between health, performance, and longevity.

I've written many articles on this topic. Be sure to check out:

This week, The New York Times published an article entitled “The Right Dose of Exercise for a Longer Life.” The article discusses the results of two new studies that investigated how much exercise you need to actually get longevity benefits. Before jumping into the results of these studies, it’s important to note that rather than being controlled or randomized studies, this research relied on people’s memory recall of their exercise habits. So similar to diet studies that rely upon memory recall of meals, this data can be prone to human error, but can still give us important clues.

How Much Should You Exercise to Live Longer? 

In the first study, it was found that people who did not exercise at all were at the highest risk of early death. Those who exercised a little (not meeting the current American Heart Association guidelines of 150 minutes per week but at least doing something), lowered their risk of premature death by 20%. Those who met the current exercise guidelines of 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise enjoyed greater longevity benefits and 31% less risk of dying compared with those who never exercised.

But the greatest amount of exercise benefits came for those who tripled the recommended level of exercise and exercised moderately (mostly by walking) for 450 minutes per week (a little more than an hour per day). These people were 39% less likely to die prematurely than people who never exercised.

What's even more interesting is that after 450 minutes per week, the longevity benefits of exercise plateaued, but they never significantly declined. Even people engaging in 10 times or more the recommended exercise dose gained about the same reduction in mortality risk as people who simply met the 150 minute per week guidelines. They didn’t get any healthier, but also (contrary to what many believe) they also did not increase their risk of dying young.

The other new study reported in the Times reached a similar conclusion, but this study focused more on exercise intensity, and stands in stark contrast to other studies that have suggested frequent, strenuous exercise might contribute to early mortality. In this study, it was found that meeting the exercise guidelines significantly reduced the risk of early death, even if that exercise was moderate in intensity (such as walking). No suprises there.

What Kind of Exercise Makes You Live Longer?

But for those who engaged in occasional vigorous and high intensity exercise, there was actually a significant additional reduction in mortality. Those who spent up to 30% of their weekly exercise time in vigorous, intense activities were 9% less likely to die prematurely than people who exercised for the same amount of time but only moderately. People who spent more than 30% of their exercise time doing strenuous workouts actually gained an extra 13% reduction in early mortality, compared with people who never broke through the same intensity barrier. Even among the few people in the study who were found to be completing the largest amounts of intense exercise, there was no increase in risk of death.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what qualifies as moderate and what qualifies as vigorous.

  • Moderate intensity aerobic exercise is when you're working hard enough to raise your heart rate and break into a sweat. Think of it this way: you're working at a moderate intensity if you're able to talk but unable to sing the words to a song during the activity.

  • Vigorous intensity aerobic exercise is when you're breathing hard and fast, your muscles are burning, and your heart rate has increased significantly. If you're working at this level, you won't be able to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath.

So what’s the ultimate takeaway message from these two new studies?

Researcher Klaus Gebel, who led the second study, puts it like this:

“…try to reach at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week and have around 20 to 30 minutes of that be vigorous activity…”

Gebel also notes that a larger dose of exercise, for those who are so inclined, does not seem to be unsafe.

How much of your exercise regimen is in the moderate zone? How much is in the vigorous? Will this research lead you to change your approach to fitness? Share your thoughts with us in Comments below or head on over to Facebook.com/GetFitGuy and join the conversation there!

Ling life image courtesy of Shutterstock.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.