Need a New Year’s exercise resolution? Here’s what the latest science says is optimal for health

If you’re looking to get back on the fitness wagon after a holiday season of overindulgence, consider making this year’s goal to exercise for optimal health, rather than weight loss. 

Even the tiniest bit of exercise is health protective

With the caveat that optimal physical activity is not “one size fits all,” since people’s optimum levels are tied to factors like age and disease status, experts agreed that if you’re sedentary, the most important way you can improve your health is to just get moving.

For people who can’t perform the minimum level of recommended activity (around 150 minutes a week of moderate activity), even adding 10 minutes of walking per day to their daily routine “can markedly improve health,” according to Steven Moore, an investigator at the National Cancer Institute.

While that might seem like a low bar, the reality is that 1 in 4 older adults do not engage in any regular physical activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The biggest benefit in terms of mortality is that transition from a sedentary to an active lifestyle,” said Dr. Benjamin Levine, who directs the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.

“People who are completely sedentary and do no regular physical activity get a huge benefit simply from going from sedentary to active,” Levine said.

A prescription for health

If you’re already leading an active lifestyle, but want to optimize your efforts, Levine has designed what he calls a “prescription for life.”

Levine’s prescription is a twist on the federal guidelines for health, which recommend getting between 150 and 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, or between 75 and 150 minutes of high-intensity aerobic exercise each week, in order to maintain a healthy body.

His recommendations are based on data that followed individuals over decades, and analyzed how much exercise they had to do for maximum cardiovascular, fitness and mortality benefits, he said.

The breakdown: Four to five days of exercise per week, including one day of high-intensity exercise; two to three days of moderate-intensity exercise; one day of strength training; and a fun active day.


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