It’s no secret that exercise is key to a healthier and longer life. As you have likely heard, federal guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity every week. Think: five days of 30-minute workouts like brisk walking, dancing or cycling. The guidelines also call for at least two sessions of strength training per week.
But how much exercise do you really need to get life-extending benefits? Is 150 minutes a week the optimal amount of exercise for a long life, or should you strive for more? What if you measure your exercise in steps, not minutes? And how many years do other types of exercise, like strength and balance training, add?
Recent studies on the links between activity and longevity help shed light on those and other questions — with some surprising takeaways for older adults in particular. (For instance, more doesn't appear to be more when it comes to strength training, while stretching emerges as a potential lifesaver.) Here's what research and experts say about the right dose of exercise to enhance your lifespan.
Just 11 minutes of activity can help you live longer
If you’re unable to do the recommended 150 minutes a week, you may be tempted not to bother getting off the couch. But that would be a mistake, because research shows that even small amounts of exercise give you a longevity boost, says William E. Kraus, M.D., past president of the American College of Sports Medicine.
For example, a 2020 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that just 11 minutes a day of “moderate-to-vigorous” activity significantly lengthened the lifespans of people who spend most of their day sitting.
In another study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, people who exercised a little but didn’t meet the physical activity recommendations were still 20 percent less likely to die in a 14-year period than those who did no activity at all.
“There is no least amount of exercise you need to do,” says Kraus, a professor in the division of cardiology medicine at Duke University, who helped write the 2018 activity guidelines. “It turns out that anything is better than nothing." In other words, not being able to hit 100 or 150 minutes for whatever reason shouldn't discourage you from accomplishing smaller amounts.
In fact, he notes, someone who goes from no exercising at all to 20 minutes of exercise a day is going to net significantly more relative gain — or more bang for their buck — than someone who increases their exercise from, say, 80 to 100 minutes.
In recent years, epidemiologists have been trying to figure out not just the minimum but the optimal amount of exercise for a long life. So far, the research is mixed.
One large study that followed 416,000 people showed the greatest longevity benefits were associated with about 700 minutes a week of moderate exercise — that’s more than four times the official recommendation. Another followed 661,000 people and found that 450 to 750 minutes a week (7.5 to 12.5 hours) was the optimal amount.
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However, a recent study published in August 2021 in Mayo Clinic Proceedings better coincided with the federal guideline. It found that people who exercised between 2.6 and 4.5 hours a week (156 to 270 minutes) had the most improvement in life expectancy. They were about 50 percent less likely to die in a 25-year period than those who didn’t exercise.
Interestingly, the mortality benefits diminished in those who exercised more than 10 hours a week, says coauthor James O’Keefe, M.D., director of preventive cardiology at the St. Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute.
O’Keefe recommends shooting for 30 to 55 minutes of physical activity a day, and prioritizing activities you can do with others. He notes that another analysis of the same data set showed that activities like tennis, badminton and soccer were associated with a longer lifespan than exercising solo.
“For overall well-being and longevity, interactive sports, where there is some camaraderie, are best,” he says. “You don’t have to go to the gym, put headphones on and slog through a 45-minute treadmill session. Find whatever is enjoyable to you.”
You may get the best payoff by hitting around 7,000 steps a day
Although 10,000 steps a day has been touted as the gold standard, it appears that a number closer to 7,000 steps may be enough for a longer lifespan.
Researchers in a September 2021 study found that middle-aged adults who took at least 7,000 daily steps over a 10-year time span had a 50 to 70 percent lower chance of early death compared to those who took fewer steps, says study author Amanda Paluch, a physical activity epidemiologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Paluch says her team decided to look at steps because they account for overall movement throughout the day rather than time specifically set aside for “exercise.” Their results reinforce other research on the dangers of being sedentary.
“The great thing about tracking steps is that it’s easy to fit it into your daily lifestyle,” Paluch says. “It doesn’t have to be getting out and doing a long bout of exercise. You can opt to move more around your house, park further away, do some gardening or light housework or something active with your grandkids.”
And here’s some good news: If you’re an older adult, early data indicates it may be possible to get a longevity benefit from as few as 5,500 or 6,000 steps a day, Kraus says.
“There are good reasons to believe that older adults require fewer steps than younger people,” Kraus explains. “Why is that? Adults are less efficient when they walk. Each stride requires more energy, their legs go out further. It could be that getting fewer steps, they expend the same amount of energy.”
Two sessions a week of strength training is ideal
Incorporating strength training into your weekly routine is also important for a long life, research shows. One study published in the journal Preventive Medicine found that older adults who strength-trained at least twice a week had 46 percent lower odds of early death.
Another meta-analysis reviewed 11 studies and found that compared with no exercise, resistance training on its own was associated with a 21 percent drop in the risk of all-cause mortality. When combined with aerobic exercise, it cut the risk by 40 percent.
That analysis also found no benefit in doing more than two stints of resistance training a week. For the best results, do exercises that target major muscle groups and do 8 to 12 repetitions of each, the federal guidelines say.
Strength training doesn’t have to mean lifting weights. Experts say it can also be working with a resistance band, using your body weight for exercises such as squats and push-ups, or digging with a shovel while gardening. Newbies can start with gentle body weight exercises, like sitting on a couch and extending each leg up and down five times, suggests Justus Ortega, director of the biomechanics and fall prevention program at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. What’s important, he says, is that you tire each muscle to the point that it’s difficult to do another repetition.
Yes, flexibility and balance really do matter
The federal activity guidelines specifically advise older adults to include stretching and balance training as part of their weekly physical activity, and that’s backed up by science showing a strong link to longevity.
For example, a 2021 study published in JAMA Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery found that poor balance function was linked to a 44 percent increased risk of death from all causes in adults ages 40 and older.
Balance and flexibility training are the “great ignored third component” of healthy aging, Kraus says. Maintaining your flexibility and balance as you age is important to improve your mobility, preserve your independence and — perhaps most important — help prevent falls. One out of four older adults falls each year in the U.S., making falls the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries to older Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Your lower limbs get really stiff as you age,” Kraus says. “If you step on a pine cone and you’re flexible and balanced, you’ll recover. If you’re stiff, you will fall.”
Spending 10 minutes a day doing some flexibility and balance exercises is all that’s necessary, experts say. You can sign up for a fall prevention class, take tai chi or check out the easy exercises recommended by the National Institute on Aging.
Michelle Crouch is a contributing writer who has covered health and personal finance for some of the nation's top consumer publications. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Prevention, The Washington Post and The New York Times.