Exercise Recommendations for Calorie-Burning Activity
The amount of exercise that's right for you depends on the health goal you are trying to achieve.
People often ask, "How much exercise should I be doing?" While this seems like a straightforward question, the answer depends on what you're trying to achieve. Exercise recommendations vary depending on the desired benefit. For example, the amount of exercise required for lasting weight loss and cardiovascular benefits is considerably more than the amount needed for general health benefits like lower blood pressure and stress reduction.
According to the Surgeon General's Report and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults can derive general health benefits from doing at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity (e.g. brisk walking, biking) most days of the week.1
For most people, this level of activity translates into burning around 150-200 calories per exercise session.
Weight Management Benefits
For weight loss, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends 200-300 minutes, or 2,000 calories per week. This translates into 60 minutes of daily activity and burning around 300-400 calories per exercise session.2,3
To prevent weight regain, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans relied on a growing body of research to make the recommendation of 60-90 minutes of daily moderate-intensity activity, burning around 400-500 calories per exercise session. This level of activity was also found among those enrolled in the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR). Participants in the Registry, which includes individuals who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for more than a year, report expending over 2,500 calories per week doing physical activity which also translates into burning around 400-500 calories per exercise session.
To prevent excess weight gain, the International Association for the Study of Obesity (IASO) recommends 45-60 minutes of moderate intensity activity each day. The Dietary Guidelines have similar goals, recommending 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous-intensity activity on most days of the week. 4 Not all studies support a goal this high, however. For example, one study found that 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity (the equivalent of walking 12 miles per week) was sufficient to prevent weight gain.5
Many people believe that being physically active automatically equates to cardiovascular fitness. To optimize fitness levels, the body must be regularly stressed to reach peak physical condition. To become physically fit, the ACSM recommends a comprehensive activity plan which includes 30-45 minutes of vigorous activity at least three days a week for cardio-respiratory fitness, regular stretching for joint flexibility, and resistance training to maintain muscular strength and endurance. These recommendations mean burning 500 calories or more per exercise session.
This content is reviewed regularly. Last updated June 25, 2012.
Exercise goals depend on personally determined health goals and abilities. When beginning an exercise program, a good strategy is to start with the recommendations for health benefits, then progress through the different recommendations until the desired outcome is achieved.
Other Science Library topics:
Exercise and Activity
Achieving a Sustainable Weight Loss
1 Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health.
2Jakicic JM, Clark K, Coleman E, Donnelly JE, Foreyt J, Melanson E, Volek J, Volpe SL; American College of Sports Medicine. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Appropriate intervention strategies for weight loss and prevention of weight regain for adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Dec;33(12):2145-56.
3Jakicic JM, Otto AD. Physical activity considerations for the treatment and prevention of obesity. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Jul;82(1 Suppl):226S-229S.
4Saris WH, Blair SN, van Baak MA, Eaton SB, Davies PS, Di Pietro L, Fogelholm M, Rissanen A, Schoeller D, Swinburn B, Tremblay A, Westerterp KR, Wyatt H. How much physical activity is enough to prevent unhealthy weight gain? Outcome of the IASO 1st Stock Conference and consensus statement. Obes Rev. 2003 May;4(2):101-14.
5Cris A. Slentz, PhD; Brian D. Duscha, MS; Johanna L. Johnson, MS; Kevin Ketchum, MS; Lori B. Aiken, BS; Gregory P. Samsa, PhD; Joseph A. Houmard, PhD; Connie W. Bales, PhD, RD; William E. Kraus, MD Effects of the Amount of Exercise on Body Weight, Body Composition, and Measures of Central Obesity. Arch Intern Med. 2004;164:31-39.