We’ve all heard that we should be walking 10,000 steps a day. But is that enough exercise? It depends. There are lots of factors to consider: age, fitness level, ability, goals, and lifestyle. We’ve asked two experts to help us understand how much exercise we really need. (Note: Every individual is different. If you have any specific questions or concerns about exercising, consult your doctor.)
Why exercise intensity matters
The intensity level at which you perform exercise should be taken into account when considering how much of it you need. If you’re elderly and live a more sedentary lifestyle, simply taking 10,000 steps might be all the exercise you require. But for the average healthy adult, “there is a big difference between walking to the corner store and working up a sweat,” says Mathew Forzaglia, a certified personal trainer at NEO Fifth and the Fhitting Room in New York City. “To be considered a beneficial exercise, you must increase your heart rate.”
Moderately intense exercise for a relatively active adult is walking about 100 steps in a minute. In general, “it is better to aim for intensity over distance,” Forzaglia says. “You will get much more out of the activity if you do it with a higher intensity or putting more effort into it opposed to dragging out 10,000 steps across a full day.”
Is there anything wrong with just taking 10,000 steps a day? It’s much better than doing nothing at all—though it won’t necessarily help you reach any far-off fitness goals.
Consider your fitness goals
In general, adding more exercise into your daily regimen will help you improve your fitness level. “Certainly the 10,000 steps will be beneficial to overall health, but you can potentially derive greater overall benefits from additional exercise, and even more importantly, different modalities,” explains Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, assistant professor of exercise science and director of the Human Performance Lab at CUNY Lehman College in New York City. “Walking or running will do very little for muscular strength, power, muscle mass, posture, bone density, flexibility, and other parameters. Thus, you'd need to include exercise such as resistance training to enhance other aspects of fitness.”
So, how much and how often should you be adding in other exercises on top of walking? “Walking is an activity where you can derive good benefits from daily participation,” explains Schoenfeld. “Benefits from high-intensity interval training can be obtained with less frequent activity. And resistance training would generally only need 2 to 3 days per week for benefits from a health standpoint.”
How long do you need to exercise?
The amount of time needed to gain benefit from exercise will vary from individual to individual—but it’s also less about the length of time you’re working out, and more about how you’re using that time. “With resistance training, your rest intervals between sets will be of primary importance to duration—if you take very long breaks between sets your workout can last hours but you're not doing that much in the actual session,” explains Schoenfeld. “Moreover, a high-intensity interval training bout can derive terrific cardiorespiratory benefits in a fraction of the time as traditional aerobic exercise.”
Knowing all of these things can help you determine how best to follow the physical activity recommendations for health set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC suggests: “For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Aerobic activity should be performed in episodes of at least 10 minutes, and preferably, it should be spread throughout the week.”
In addition, the CDC suggests strength training at least twice a week, with a focus on all the major muscle groups. Think back, chest, abs, arms, and legs.
“The most important thing to do — which I do, and tell all my clients to do — is to listen to your body,” says Forzaglia.