Physical activity guidelines for Americans: What you need to know

Find out what the physical activity recommendations are and what activities count toward physical activity.

Physical activity is important for health. Michigan State University Extension says that being physically active helps maintain weight, improves lung and heart function and makes daily tasks easier to accomplish. According to the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, we need to do aerobic activities and muscle strengthening activities to improve our health.

The recommendation for aerobic physical activity is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity each week. Additionally, activities that strengthen your muscles are recommended at least two days a week, such as working the major muscle groups of the body (legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders and arms). But how does that translate to the activities you do during the week? Here are specific examples as guidelines to help you determine the difference between moderate and vigorous intensities, as well as what activities strengthen muscles.

Moderate-intensity aerobic physical activities:

  • Brisk walking (three miles per hour or faster, but not race walking)
  • Water aerobics
  • Bicycle riding, slower than 10 miles per hour
  • Tennis (doubles)
  • Ballroom dancing
  • General gardening

Vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activities:

  • Race walking, jogging or running
  • Swimming laps
  • Tennis (singles)
  • Aerobic dancing
  • Bicycling 10 miles per hour or faster
  • Jumping rope
  • Heavy gardening (continuous digging or hoeing with increased heart rate)
  • Hiking uphill or with a heavy backpack

Muscle strengthening activities:

  • Lifting weights
  • Using resistance bands
  • Doing exercises that use your body weight for resistance, like push-ups, sit-ups or squats
  • Heavy gardening
  • Yoga

Another way to gauge exercise intensity for aerobic activity is to use the talk test. The talk test is a simple way to measure relative intensity. When using relative intensity, people pay attention to how physical activity affects their heart rate and breathing. As a rule of thumb, if you're doing moderate-intensity activity you can talk, but not sing, during the activity. If you're doing vigorous-intensity activity, you will not be able to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath. For more information on the talk test visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Before you start any exercise program, it is important to speak with your healthcare provider first. He or she will be able to give recommendations based on your health status and any other special considerations. A good free resource to get started is the National Institute of Aging’s Go4Life program; it has tips and materials to order or download for free, along with information on aerobic exercises as well as strength training, balance and flexibility exercises. Another resource to look to is your local MSU Extension office.

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