While many of us think we’re getting enough exercise, an alarming number of us are probably wrong. (Me, I didn’t even attempt to be right in the first place.) A recent study published in PLOS ONE suggests that the majority of young and middle-aged to old adults underestimate the intensity of physical activity required to achieve health benefits.
The study, conducted by York University’s Faculty of Health, recruited 129 sedentary adults ages 18 to 64. They were asked to walk or jog on a treadmill at a speed that they felt corresponded to the ‘light,’ ‘moderate’ and ‘vigorous’ intensity descriptors used in the global physical activity guidelines. While they correctly estimated the physical activity required for light effort, they underestimated both moderate and vigorous.
“Though there’s been ample research that helped develop the current guidelines, it’s unclear whether individuals actually understand them as intended,” says Karissa Canning, lead researcher and graduate student. “This is worrisome for both personal and public health and well-being.”
So what’s the deal? Why aren’t our workouts working out?
“Our perception of distance and intensity is skewed, especially if you don’t take pleasure in exercise,” says sports nutritionist and trainer Amanda Buckley, M.S.Ed, C.S.C.S., CISSN, USAW. Plus, let’s face it: Technology is making us lazy — though we define it as efficiency. “Look at how many times we opt to wait for an elevator or in line for an escalator instead of taking the stairs,” says Buckley. “In addition, many don’t walk to do nearby errands anymore — they drive. Perception and reality are growing further apart.”
How to get enough (and the right kind of) exercise
The American Council on Exercise recommends only 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week to begin reaping the health benefits (which comes out to a little over 20 minutes daily). The best way to tell if you’re exercising at a low, moderate or vigorous pace? Use the talk test:
- If you’re able to carry on a conversation easily while you’re exercising, you’re working out at a low intensity.
- If you’re able to carry on a conversation, pausing every sentence or so to take a good breath, you’re working out at a moderate intensity.
- If you’re only able to get out a few words between deep breaths, then you’re working out at a vigorous intensity.
Other things to consider
“The less active you are, the more difficult a moderate level of exercise will initially feel,” says Buckley. “If you can commit to three days a week, you’ll notice improved feelings and less fatigue within a few weeks.”
All women should aim for at least the minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, and your workouts should include both cardiovascular and weight training to aid in bone density retention and prevent age-associated muscle loss.
“I recommend increasing the levels of physical activity as you age, since the hormones that prevent excess body fat accumulation are increasing as you age,” says Dr. Barry Sears, leading research scientist and best-selling author of The Zone. Sears suggests at least 30 minutes per day in your 20s, 45 minutes in your 30s, and 60 minutes in your 40s and over. “It’s also in your 40s that you begin to lose muscle mass, so you want to include more resistance training as you age.”