The definitive answer to "how much exercise is really enough?"

We know that many Australians are not getting enough exercise, and we know this lack of exercise can exacerbate health problems such as hypertension and arthritis. But how much exercise is really enough?

With so much conflicting information out there, it can be confusing. One thing that isn’t confusing is the link between exercise and your physical and mental well-being, which has been confirmed by study after study over many years.

The right exercise formula

The exact formula for success varies from person to person, but some key elements apply to everyone. Consider the following seven steps:

1. What exercise do you enjoy? Choosing an exercise you enjoy is a great first step. Too many people force themselves into activities like jogging or swimming when it’s the last thing they would rather do. The fact is most people are naturally drawn to certain forms of exercise – if you can find two or three forms of exercise which you enjoy, then that is a perfect starting point.

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2. How much exercise can you tolerate? This varies for everybody, but it’s important to discover your exercise tolerance, because it gives you a baseline. Most importantly, try not to worry how your tolerance compares to others. Some people will easily manage a 20 minute jog or a 30 minute walk, but others may only tolerate half this, or less. It doesn’t matter. Once you have chosen some exercises you enjoy, find out how much you can tolerate, without pushing yourself to exhaustion or pain. You will know once you start feeling tired what your basic tolerance is.

3. Stick at it: Once you know what you can tolerate, it’s important to keep it up. Do the exercises at least five times per week. You may need a day or two per week to recover. If you keep it up your tolerance will naturally increase: for example, if your tolerance is 20 minutes of brisk walking then eventually your body will adapt to this and want more. Soon you will be increasing it to 25 and then 30 minutes of brisk walking, and more.

4. Mix the intensities: Ideally you will do a mix of low, medium and high intensity exercise. Low intensity exercise includes walking – ideally everybody should be taking 12,000 steps per day (a fitness tracker can measure your steps for you). Moderate intensity exercise 2-3 times a week is also ideal – think of moderate as pushing yourself to somewhere between 5.5 and 7 out of 10. Moderate exercise may include running, cycling, fast walking or swimming. Finally, research is showing a strong link between short, high intensity exercise and tangible health benefits. High intensity is pushing yourself up to 8.5 out of 10 – not more than that, as this can invite injury. Anyone with a heart condition will need to consult your doctor before starting a high intensity program. But it is achievable for most people, because you are going at 85% of your capacity. The trick is settling on which exercises are best for you – for example, exercise bike, sprints, star jumps etc. There are many options, but I have seen great results with a three minute workout I initially developed for my athletes, which is adaptable for anyone at any level of fitness.

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5. Exercise with purpose: To achieve consistency with exercise, it’s best to keep it front of mind. For example, when you go for a walk make it a good pace without stops where possible. The exercise you get from a purposeful walk is much greater than that of a casual walk, for example while window shopping.

6. You shouldn’t be in pain: With exercise, you should always have something left in the tank when you are finished. It’s not about pushing yourself to absolute limits. Pain is a signal that you need to slow down or stop, and can lead to injury. Pain from arthritis is something else and this needs to be managed, hopefully in conjunction with your physio or GP.

7. Everyone is different: Just focus on you and understand what you can achieve, what you enjoy, and stick with it. Remember to avoid comparing yourself with others. Consider engaging a trainer or physio to develop a program with you. Results can happen faster than you think.

Do you exercise enough, or too much?