How much cardio do I need for long-term health benefits?
New research just confirms the reality that you don’t need to be a marathoner to reap the health benefits of running. Even a little running can decrease your risk of an early death, according to new research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. So how much cardio do you need, exactly? And what type — since not everyone is a runner — will allow you a better chance at staying strong and healthy? Experts tell Mic that any activity that gets your heart rate up can yield long-term benefits, as long as you clock in around two-and-a-half hours of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.
In the new meta-analysis, researchers from Victoria University in Australia, Mahidol University in Thailand, and other institutions looked at 14 studies that included a total of more than 232,000 healthy adults with follow-up periods lasting from 5.5 to 35 years. Who qualified as a “runner” differed from one study to the next, with some studies looking at members of running groups and others at people who ran at least once a month, the Guardian reports.
Those who ran — regardless of distance, pace, duration, or frequency — had a 27% lower risk of death due to any cause than those who didn’t run at all. Running even once a week or less, less than 50 minutes a week, or less than six miles per hour reduced the risk of death from any cause. Runners also had a 30% lower risk of death due to cardiovascular issues and a 23% lower risk of death due to cancer. And in fact, greater amounts of running did not lead to greater reductions in risk of death.
Although this research focused primarily on running, any type of cardio can lead to long-term benefits, which can include lowering your stress and blood pressure levels, strengthening your immune system, and improving your sleep, according to Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist in Connecticut and author of The Marathon Method and other books. “While there are slight differences in the benefits provided by different modes of cardiovascular exercise, the ultimate goal is to raise the heart rate”— regardless of how you do so, he tells Mic.
Alexa Mieses, a family physician and assistant professor in the department of family medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill, agrees. “Even gardening can be a type of cardio exercise,” she says. “The trick is to incorporate physical activity into everything we do.” In other words, you don’t need to block out a gym session or spin class in your calendar in order to gain the benefits of cardio.
There are a number of recommendations for the absolute minimum amount of cardio you need to do to enjoy its long-term benefits, Mieses says, but the American Heart Association suggests at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise, a week, which can look like 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five times a week, or 25 minutes of high-intensity exercise three times a week. Basically, if you’re out of breath, you’ve hit moderate-intensity, and if you can’t speak in full sentences, you’ve hit high-intensity.
Holland adds that studies have shown you can even break up your workouts throughout the day and experience the same health benefits. “Three 10-minute bouts of exercise is the same as one continuous 30-minute session,” he says. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) can help you get the most out of shorter blocks of time.
You don’t need to block out a gym session or spin class in your calendar in order to gain the benefits of cardio.
And again, your daily total doesn’t have to take the form of a regimented workout. Alex McDonald — a family physician specializing in sports medicine in San Bernardino, California — advises his patients park at the far end of their office parking lot, walk five minutes to the office, walk 10 minutes during lunch, walk five minutes back to their car after work, and walk 10 minutes after dinner. He also suggests taking the stairs instead of the elevator, sitting for no longer than 30 minutes at a time, and investing in a standing desk.
While it’s easy to get caught up in the details, like the type of cardio you engage in, or how often, doing so may just cause needless stress, and even lead to a paralysis by analysis scenario. “The key is just to get moving,” McDonald says.