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I’m not going to sit here and write an article telling you that exercise is important. However, I’m happy to give you my take on how much you should exercise for longevity.
You should already know that it can have a positive impact on both short-term and long-term health. However, like with most things in life; there is a relative ‘sweet spot’ to aim for when it comes to exercise. Especially if the goal is longevity.
With the aim of living a long and healthy life; we will discuss and speculate on the exact amount of exercise required to extend lifespan without adverse consequences. You should have an idea of exactly which type of exercise you need to perform and come away with some key scientific study data that will allow you to design a protocol that works for you.
Does exercise help you live longer?
To put it simply: Yes! Exercise can definitely help you live longer. In fact, it’s one of the best tools we have to fight against age related disease and ultimately extend life.
“All-cause mortality is decreased by about 30-35% in physically active as compared to inactive subjects” was the conclusion of a 2012 review paper. This remarkable benefit comes from the ability of exercise to reduce risk factors associated with obesity, heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer.
Another highly regarded study published in 1995 showed that vigorous activity is associated with longevity. In this paper, they concluded that increasing your metabolism during intense exercise can increase lifespan in healthy adults.
One more recent study published on the CDC website in 2020 showed that performing muscle-strengthening activity more than 2 hours per week was associated with lower all-cause mortality. The result was independent of aerobic exercise, showing the clear benefit of maintaining strength and muscle as you age.
It’s clear that low/moderate-intensity aerobic, high-intensity aerobic and anaerobic strength training all play a crucial part in longevity. Each of these forms of exercise should play a key role in any longevity plan and each one will need to be performed for a certain number of hours per week.
How can exercise make you live longer?
The methods by which exercise can increase longevity are multiple. Performing regular exercise can:
- Help you maintain a healthy body weight
- Improve bone and muscle strength
- Reduce risk of many chronic diseases (diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke etc.)
- Improve brain health and cognition
- Support positive mental health outcomes
- Improve joint health and strength
- Increase balance and stability
- Help maintain social connections
Every health outcome listed above is associated with increased longevity. Gaining these benefits will not only lengthen your life, but also improve your overall health to give you a great quality of life.
What exercise is best for longevity?
Low-Intensity aerobic exercise
Any type of exercise that keeps your heart rate at around 50% of its maximum should be defined as ‘low-intensity’. You should be able to easily maintain a conversation and breathing rate should not increase too much during low-intensity activity.
Gardening, walking, yoga and gentle cycling could all be classed as low-intensity. They should be performed at a slow and steady speed in order to achieve the desired heart rate.
The importance on consistent low-intensity exercise is well understood, with a 2015 systematic review showing its effectiveness at improving both physical and cognitive health. The study also touted the benefits of low-intensity exercise due to reduced risk of injury and long-term sustainability.
Another quality 2019 meta-analysis showed that “higher levels of physical activity, at any intensity, and less time spent sedentary, are associated with substantially decreased risk of mortality”.
The above studies perfectly illustrate the importance of low-intensity exercise for longevity. Performing steady-state activity and avoiding spending long periods of time sedentary should be viewed as a key exercise component in any longevity plan.
Moderate-intensity exercise should get your heart beating at around 75% of its maximum. You will still be able to hold a conversation at this intensity, but your increased rate of breathing will make it slightly challenging.
Jogging, swimming, rowing and hiking are good examples of moderate-intensity exercise. Some people will find that jogging gets their heart rate to 75%, whereas less trained individuals may find brisk walking to be challenging enough.
The benefits of moderate-intensity activity are well-documented. Those performing this type of exercise regularly should see reduced cholesterol, blood pressure and body weight; along with a host of other benefits that reduce the risk of chronic disease.
A collection of research is also showing that moderate-intensity exercise may also be linked with cellular repair and regeneration. Studies have demonstrated that performing regular bouts of activity can increase the cellular recycling process known as ‘autophagy’, which is viewed as a key component of longevity.
The benefits of moderate-intensity exercise cover everything from aging at a cellular level to the avoidance of chronic disease. It should absolutely be a part of your longevity exercise plan.
High-Intensity Exercise (HIIT)
High-intensity exercise is generally performed in short bursts where you are achieving close to maximum heart rate. The most popular form is known as ‘high intensity interval training’ or ‘HIIT’.
High-intensity exercise could involve sprints, intense cycling or circuit training. It will often involve multiple rounds of maximum effort with brief rest periods in between. You should expect to be completely out of breath.
One randomized controlled trial published in 2020 compared the mortality rates of subjects performing exercise at various intensities. The study found a lower all-cause mortality rate for the high-intensity exercise group in comparison to other forms of exercise.
HIIT training has also been shown to induce cellular recycling and autophagy in human skeletal muscle. It does this through a different mechanism to the one previously mentioned in moderate-intensity exercise so both should be utilized for longevity purposes.
High-intensity training has also been shown to improve Vo2 max more than other forms of exercise. This is a measure of how much oxygen your body is able to utilize during exercise and is strongly correlated with longevity.
The data clearly shows that performing intermittent bouts of high-intensity exercise of at least 90% max heart rate can have a profound impact on longevity.
Strength training, also known as ‘resistance training’, involves using your muscles to lift heavy things. It can be done using just your body weight or performed in a gym using weights and machines.
The ultimate goal of strength training is to improve muscle strength, size and endurance. Some may find that just performing pushups, sit-ups and pullups at home is enough to stimulate muscle growth. Others may prefer to spend time in the gym using a bench press or squat rack.
It’s also worth noting that some sports and activities will fall into the category of strength training. Rock climbing is a great example since it provides a full body muscular workout that will build strength and endurance.
One of the main benefits of strength training is the ability to reduce age related sarcopenia (muscle loss). It’s estimated that you will lose between 3-8% of your muscle per decade after the age of 30 without adequate resistance training. The rate of decline is estimated to be even higher after the age of 60.
Large scale studies have shown that increased muscle mass in later life is strongly correlated with longevity. Conversely, we have seen other studies point out that older adults lacking muscle in their arms and legs are more likely to die early than those with more muscle.
The benefits of muscle and strength for longevity are multiple. Some of which include:
- Reduced frailty
- Improved blood sugar regulation
- Better quality of life
- Preserved bone density
- Improved mental and emotional health
It’s clear that a mountain of evidence and benefits are associated with muscle and strength. Attaining these benefits through strength training is key for longevity.
What is the best amount of exercise for longevity?
In the previous subsection we established the different types of exercise that are required for longevity. Now we can look at exactly how much time we need to spend performing each activity.
How Much Low-Intensity Exercise?
Low-intensity exercise should become a part of your everyday life. It needs to be spread across most days and contribute to an overall active life.
One study published in 2021 gives us a good insight into just how much low-intensity exercise we should be aiming for. It followed 2,110 adults for more than 10 years and found that participants completing over 7,000 steps per day had a 50-70% lower risk of mortality.
Another 2020 study looking at total step count found the lowest all-cause mortality in a group completing 12,000 steps per day. Significant benefits were also seen at levels upwards of 8,000 steps per day, but 12,000 showed the best results.
One final study looking at low-intensity activity also discovered that more steps equated to reduced risk of mortality. The group completing 11,500 steps per day saw a 50-60% reduction in mortality compared to the group completing 4,000 steps. It’s worth noting that significant reduction in mortality was already found at 6,000 steps, with diminishing returns after.
Based on the available literature; my recommendation would be to aim for around 12,000 steps per day on a consistent basis. This is just above the CDC’s recommendation of 10000 steps per day, which can be used as a good baseline.
It’s worth noting that most Americans only take 3,000-4,000 steps per day. That puts them in the range for highest risk of mortality in the above studies. Ouch.
The best way to measure your steps is by using a pedometer or smart watch. Taking 12,000 steps is the equivalent of walking around 6 miles. I suggest you break up your day with short walks to gain maximum benefit.
How Much Moderate-Intensity Exercise?
Moderate-intensity exercise is a purposeful activity that should be performed multiple times per week. It’s an aerobic form of exercise that could take the form of jogging, cycling, hiking or many other sports.
Studies showing the benefits of moderate-intensity exercise are many, but few offer a tangible dose dependent response. The studies that have taken place show a huge variation in the time required for benefit, and the optimal amount probably falls somewhere in the middle.
Performing moderate exercise just two or three times per week showed significant benefits in a Swedish follow-up study conducted over 11 years. The study was only a small scale study but did show a 28% reduction in mortality when compared to the sedentary group.
Another study compared accelerometer data from 44,000 middle-aged and older individuals. It concluded that higher sedentary time is associated with higher mortality. Shock. It did also find that around 30-40 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per day is enough to attenuate risk of mortality.
One final study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that accumulating 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week reduced mortality risk by 40%. This recommendation fits into the minimum required dose suggested by the CDC, who advocate for 150-300 minutes per week.
My recommendation would be to perform 160 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. I would suggest splitting this into four sessions of 40 minutes throughout the week to achieve maximum benefit without injury or overtraining.
How Much High-Intensity Exercise (HIIT)?
Performing high-intensity exercise puts your mind and body under serious strain. It’s the most challenging form of exercise on this list and will be performed the fewest number of times per week.
One study looking at the impact of regular HIIT training for health and fitness showed benefits improved glucose metabolism and muscle capacity when performing two 30 minute sessions per week. Previous studies have already shown that impaired glucose metabolism is strongly linked to aging, which further demonstrates the longevity benefits of HIIT training.
Another study published in Cell, monitored the health outcomes of participants when performing 38 minutes of HIIT training twice per week. It concluded that high-intensity exercise improved age related decline in muscle mitochondria and other longevity pathways.
These two studies highlight the importance of high-intensity training and prove that a small dose is highly effective.
My recommendation would be to perform two sessions of HIIT training using a 4x4x4 pattern (4 max effort + 4 recovery effort x 4 times). This equates to two 36 minute sessions for a total of 72 minutes per week.
The science-based recommendation of 72 minutes is extremely close to the CDC’s guideline of ‘75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week’. Clearly the CDC have also done their homework.
How Much Strength Training?
Strength training, aka resistance training, is arguably the most important element of your exercise plan. It should be performed multiple times per week in order to build and maintain muscle tissue in order to achieve longevity.
One interesting study published in the Journal of American Heart Association looked at the link between strength training and all-cause mortality in 28,000 older adults. It concluded that a moderate amount, up to 145 minutes per week, was associated with lower risk of mortality.
Another study published in 2003 cited the clear longevity benefits that are associated with regular strength training. They theorized that training just ‘2 to 3 days per week’ should be enough to preserve bone density and increase muscle mass.
The literature available suggests that 120 minutes per week of strength training should be sufficient to improve longevity parameters. Any training plan should involve 3×40 minute sessions or 4×30 minute sessions per week to achieve maximum results.
Quick review of how much exercise for longevity
- Low-Intensity Exercise: 12,000 steps per day (or 6 miles walking).
- Moderate-Intensity Exercise: 160 minutes per week (4×40 minute sessions).
- High-Intensity Exercise: 72 minutes per week (2×36 minute sessions)
- Strength Training: 120 minutes per week (3×40 minute sessions or 4×30 minute sessions).
Total weekly exercise sessions: 352 minutes per week
= 50 minutes per day over 7 days
+ 12,00 steps per day.
What if I don’t have time to exercise this much?
The total amount of training outlined in this guide may appear extreme to a novice exerciser. Committing to 352 minutes per week of dedicated training means spending an average of 1 hour per day working out over a 6 day period (with time for one rest day).
Performing this volume and intensity of exercise is optimal for longevity, but it’s not possible for everybody. Those with a limited level of fitness should look to start at a lower volume and look to increase the amount over time.
It’s key to remember that any exercise is better than no exercise. In fact, studies have indicated that even just exercising for 10 minutes per day could be enough to save 110,000 lives per year.
If you’re currently only performing 6,000 steps per day, see if you can mange 8,000. Don’t have time for the gym? Why not try some bodyweight strength exercises at home…
‘The best type of exercise for you is the one you can realistically do’.
Exercise is absolutely fundamental for longevity. It’s been shown time and time again to be paramount for short and long-term health.
Put simply: If you’re not exercising, you probably won’t live as long.
The information put forward in this guide provides a solid framework that can help to guide your daily activity. It gives an idea of how the optimal training volume should appear, but can also be molded to suit individuals of all abilities.
Getting the knowledge is the first part of achieving your goal of a long and healthy life. Now all that’s left is to put in the work and reap the rewards. Enjoy the journey.