What’s the right amount of exercise for your life stage and personal goals?
The leading health authorities provide official guidelines for how much exercise you should get every week and the types of exercise that could benefit you, like cardio or strength training.
Having a science-backed target is useful. But the “right” amount of exercise for you will vary depending on a range of factors, like your age, sex, health status, and your hormones.
At the start of your exercise journey, aiming for specific time targets can seem intimidating, but you’ve taken the most important step — the first one. Adding any extra physical activity to your day provides health benefits, gives you more energy, boosts your mood, and helps you build up your stamina for further exercise.
Unpublished research from ZOE has also found that exercise can help you control your blood sugar after eating, which could reduce your risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Another important factor in managing your blood sugar levels alongside regular exercise is your diet.
The ZOE at-home test analyzes your blood sugar and blood fat responses to food, as well as your gut health. ZOE’s personalized nutrition program recommends the foods that work best for your unique body, based on your test results.
Take a free quiz to find out more.
And read on to learn more about how much exercise you should do.
How much exercise should you do?
The U.S. Department of Human and Health Services (HHS) recommend that adults aged 18 years or older get at least 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise every week.
Aerobic exercise involves physical activity that uses your larger muscle groups, like those in your arms or legs. Running, brisk walking, swimming, and cycling are great examples of aerobic exercise.
Alternatively, you could do 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise and see a similar benefit. The HHS also recommend adding muscle strengthening exercises to your routine on 2 or more days of the week.
That may sound like a lot, but you can divide it into 30-minute chunks over 5 days if that suits your lifestyle better than longer workouts.
In fact, this approach may be better for you than trying to cram all of your activity into a weekend.
It can take time to reach the amount recommended by the HHS. Consider starting with short bursts of 10 minutes of exercise each day and working toward the recommended amount.
Exercise’s positive effects are most powerful when they’re sustainable and you enjoy them.
These numbers are something to work toward, depending on your current fitness level.
Adding strength training exercises to your routine
Aside from making you physically stronger, strength training also helps your body digest foods more efficiently. And it reduces your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and chronic health problems.
Building up muscle strength isn’t just for carrying suitcases; it can also protect you from muscle weakness during your older years.
As with aerobic exercise, strength training requires a slow buildup that should work around your fitness level, personal goals, and health needs.
The following exercises can help you build strength:
using resistance bands
doing sit-ups, push-ups, and pull-ups
completing weighted squats
Over a week, aim to give yourself a balanced strength workout that takes in every muscle group. Pay attention to shoulders, arms, chest, back, hips, and stomach. And definitely don’t forget leg day.
There are several ways to get through your sets. But it’s best to complete 8–12 repetitions of an exercise in a set, and if you can finish three or more sets of an exercise before moving on, you’re off to a great start.
If you start feeling your balance go off-center, your back strain, or that you’re at risk of injury, use a lighter weight and focus on your form, which is your posture, the muscles you’re engaging, and the way you’re holding your weight.
Exercise recommendations for different age groups
Not every age group needs to do or can do the same amount of exercise. There are physical activity requirements for people of different ages.
Young children aged 3–5 years
Anyone with young children will know how hard it might be to get them to focus on exercise for any length of time — but that might not be a bad thing. Recommendations for children include allowing structured and unstructured active play during the day, aiming for at least 3 hours per day:
Structured play: This includes sports, games, and planned activities.
Unstructured play: This includes free play, such as skipping on the playground during recess or running around the garden screaming for no reason.
If they use electronic devices, try and keep the ratio of screen time to active playtime in favor of physically active games. It sets up nourishing exercise habits for later in life.
Older children and teens
From 6–17 years of age, children should try to get at least 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every single day. While encouraging them and letting them set goals can be healthy, the sports and activities they pursue should be the right fit for their age and development.
Aerobic exercise is best for this age group, and recommendations include:
chasing friends around the playground
For this group, it’s also important to get involved in exercise that strengthens their muscles and bones, as well as vigorous-intensity of other kinds, at least 3 days every week.
Good muscle-strengthening exercises for teens include:
using climbing frames and playground sets
participating in track and field
swimming at high speeds
Exercises that are effective at boosting bone strength include:
playing tug of war
carrying friends’ book bags around
using resistance bands
Vigorous-intensity exercise can include any of the above aerobic exercises at a higher speed or with more force.
The recommendations for older adults are the same as those for earlier adulthood. If you’re in this group, aim for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise or at least 75 weekly minutes of vigorous-intensity activity.
However, the HHS also suggest that practicing balance-improving activities like one-leg standing or yoga for 3 days of the week can help older adults reduce falls.
With advanced age can come chronic health problems. If you live with a chronic or disabling condition, try to move as much as your level of physical fitness allows.
Your main aim should be to engage in more moving around and less sitting down — whatever that means for you.
Exercise and menopause
Menopause accelerates bone loss in the body, increasing the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.
Strength training can help you increase your bone strength and protect your skeleton.
There is some evidence that regular exercise may also help with other menopause symptoms, although more research is needed.
How intense should your workout be?
The ideal intensity of your workout depends on your health goals and your overall fitness level. The American Heart Association (AHA) suggest setting daily goals you can reach and increasing the intensity of your exercise over time.
It’s important to keep up your form and posture during exercise to reduce your risk of injuries, so starting slow is best when building up your fitness regime.
When working out what ranges of intensity look like for you, it helps to know the recommended maximum heart rate for your age. The formula is simple: 220 – your age = maximum heart rate.
For example, a healthy 45-year-old would expect to have a maximum heart rate of 175 beats per minute (BPM).
There are different levels of intensity:
Moderate intensity: You can talk to the person next to you, but you can’t sing out loud without losing your breath. Your heart rate is at 50–70% of its maximum.
Vigorous intensity: You can’t say more than a few words in a row without pausing for a breath. Your heart rate is at 70–85% of its maximum.
If you use wearable fitness tech like a FitBit or Apple Watch, it may tell you your resting heart rate (how fast it beats when you’re not moving around), your maximum heart rate, and the target heart rate zones for moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise.
You can then compare these with your heart rate while you exercise.
If you’re working at an intensity that puts your heart rate in these target zones, it means your heart is pumping hard enough to get stronger without being overworked.
If you’re not so interested in all those numbers, aim on several days of the week to exercise until you’re too out of breath to talk, and stay as mobile and active as you can in between workouts.
The benefits of exercise
It’s no secret that exercise is a healthy practice to include in your day, but what makes it so necessary?
Science supports exercise’s ability to promote a whole range of healthy responses across your body and mind. These include:
better heart health
lower risk of some cancers
lower risk of stroke
stronger muscles and bones
better mood and mental health
a sharper mind
better quality of life and longevity
better gut health
better blood sugar control
The HHS recommend getting 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise every week, alongside at least 2 days of strength training.
Exercise will work best for you when you enjoy it. Its benefits range from better heart health and sharper brain function to providing a mood boost and improving your gut health.
It’s a central part of any approach to healthy living, but it’s important to start where your current fitness level allows and increase the intensity of your activity slowly.
Along with exercise, your diet plays a crucial role in keeping your body healthy and reducing your risk of chronic health conditions, as do your mental health, sleep, and social and lifestyle habits.
Our research looks at how these different factors impact your overall health and well-being.
The ZOE program provides personalized nutrition advice, based on your body’s unique responses to food, to help you reach your long-term health goals.
You can take a free quiz to find out more.
American Heart Association recommendations for physical activity in adults and kids. (n.d.). https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/aha-recs-for-physical-activity-in-adults
How much exercise do I need? (2021). https://medlineplus.gov/howmuchexercisedoineed.html
How much physical activity do older adults need? (n.d.). https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/older_adults/index.htm
How older adults can get started with exercise. (2020). https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/how-older-adults-can-get-started-exercise
Maintain your muscle: Strength training at any age. (2020). https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2020/03/maintain-your-muscle
Menopause and bone loss. (2022). https://www.endocrine.org/patient-engagement/endocrine-library/menopause-and-bone-loss
Physical activity and health during the menopausal transition. Obstetrics and Gynecology Clinics of North America. (2011). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3270074/
Physical activity guidelines for Americans. (n.d.). https://health.gov/our-work/nutrition-physical-activity/physical-activity-guidelines
Target heart rates chart. (n.d.). https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/target-heart-rates
Top 10 things to know about the second edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. (n.d.). https://health.gov/our-work/nutrition-physical-activity/physical-activity-guidelines/current-guidelines/top-10-things-know