Exercise Guidelines: It’s Time To Quit Lowering The Bar

Just last month, the American College of Sports Medicine announced that we should strive for 150 minutes a week of aerobic exercise, plus strength-training and stretching. And along with that statement, they reassured: “You can do less and still get the benefits.” The guidelines also suggest that it’s sufficient to take three 10-minute brisk walks five days a week to meet the minimum, or do nothing Monday through Friday and log all of your exercise on the weekend. Now, another report comes out (this time from the journal Circulation) stating, not only do you not have to put in a full 150 minutes a week to lower your risk of heart disease, but even a little exercise can provide health benefits.

While the report does state that 150 minutes a week is optimal, hyping the fact that it’s OK to do less is not sending a health-inspiring message. In a country where two-thirds of our population is overweight or obese, 50% of adults don’t meet the weekly 150-minute minimum and 31% don’t exercise at all, should we really continue to lower the bar? Are we that afraid of backlash from people saying they can’t possibly do that much exercise?

I believe so. Twenty one minutes a day of exercise is not a lot. In fact, I don’t think it’s nearly enough. Not only should we encourage fitness guidelines that are much higher, we should inspire people to make exercise a major part of their everyday life–not tell them that three short walks around the block will suffice.

I used to be a personal trainer and fitness coach. Before I got my certification, I had aspirations that this would be a fulfilling and rewarding occupation filled with many Rocky-esque moments. I would inspire people to get in their best shape, I would train hundreds of people to run their first marathon, I would change people’s lives by helping them change their bodies. While I did have some clients who fit this mold and were a joy to work with, there were also plenty who were uninspired and unwilling to do the work. Week after week, I would listen to them complain about their failing weight loss and lack of athletic progress, followed by a slew of excuses on why they hadn’t been doing their assigned workouts in between our sessions. I don’t have the time…I’m too busy/tired/slammed at work…woke up too late…it was too cold/too hot… In short, they weren’t taking the necessary responsibility to make themselves fit.

Granted, some of my clients were given schedules that included more than 150 minutes of exercise a week (because you can’t train for a marathon or even lose a significant amount of weight without putting in more). Yet, the requirements were still fairly easy to meet: 40 to 60 minutes, six days a week. Anyone who says they don’t have time for that, I don’t buy it. It’s just an excuse. But, even so, when I lowered those numbers and adjusted their schedules, thinking maybe I was being too aggressive and too demanding, you know what? They still didn’t meet their daily goals.

From that I learned making exercise easier and less time consuming won’t help people become more fit. It does the opposite. It’s kinda like growing up and having your parents expect all A’s from you. If you got the occasional B, that was OK. But had they set the bar at all B’s, would you really be motivated to bring home any A’s or would your report card then have a bunch of C’s?

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    • Lisa M.

      I think it’s a combination of both. For someone who has not exercised in years, 40 minutes a day IS a lot to get used to. It’s scary. One of my friends (who just recently got under the 300-pound mark) started taking her nutrition and weight seriously recently, but she was very realistic. She went to a nutritionist who factored in that she was not going to completely give up soda (but sticking to one can a day? That can be accommodated.). I don’t remember exactly, but think she did start with 10 minutes of light exercise a few days a week. 30 minutes instead of 150, but it got her into the habit of making time for it.

      I, personally, am fortunate that my exercise time can be combined with things that I will not give up. I want to spend as much time with my dog as I can, and, fortunately for me, her favorite way to spend time is to go for a nice hour-long walk, so we do that a few days a week. For people working two jobs, or working one job and juggling that with kids an housework, or who simply don’t have energy from having spent so much time sedentary (it really does sap your energy and you have to gradually ease into activity – going from sedentary lifestyle to one where you work out 150 minutes a week would be completely overwhelming, I think), I think taking a few 10-minute walks a week is a great start. And if that’s all that they do, well, it’s more than they were doing before.

    • Billi

      6 days a week… That’s tough. I try to get between 3-5 times a week depending on my work schedule. I understand your theory – and I agree, you do have to do more than just take the stairs instead of the elevator or park at the back of the parking lot. However, 12 hour work shifts are definitely not unheard of in today’s society – and for me in particular, it’s day shifts and night shifts all mixed together. Trying to balance fitness, being a momma, being a wife, and having a social life – 6 days a week would be very hard for me to achieve and/or maintain. I am careful about what and/or how much I eat. I try to get in my minimum of 3 times a week of lifting and/or cardio, and/or a Jillian Michaels 20 minute DVD if that is all the day allows… and I am able to maintain a healthy physique. What do you believe an already fit person should try to maintain as far as a fitness schedule? Is 6 days a week really realistic? Not attacking your article… just curious. :-) There is definitely a balance to it all… with the exception of those that are training for something specific – such as a marathon – where training has to be a highly placed priority.

    • adan

      you list a lot of good points, like, “making exercise easier and less time consuming won’t help people become more fit” -

      but can’t really agree with, “150 minutes of exercise a week (because you can’t..lose a significant amount of weight without putting in more…”

      my experience working with seniors and de-conditioned people is closer to what lisa commented about earlier

      i think the main problem though, is you didn’t describe the person you are basing from for your feelings about how much activity is enough or not

      my wife’s and mine’s goal with our target group aimed for, and is succeeding, in ten minute increments of success

      research says ten minutes provides health benefits, and 3 blocks of ten minutes in a day can start providing fitness benefits – we work from that

      in re to weight, without getting into the variety of problems people face, from motivation to lack of useful nutritional info, generally the bottom line is, less calories consumed than burned will reduce weight, regardless of the tone and condition of that weight, which of course negates some of the benefits of the weight loss ;-)

      but for a generally active population, conditioned to watch tv for most of their discretionary time, eat without regard to nutritional guidelines, and consume foods that look healthy but, in quantity, still provide too much of whatever (fat, sugar, etc), there is some merit to saying, hey, you want to or you don’t

      afaa, my fitness certifier to date, suggests that wellness is a choice

      i agree

      what my wife and i try to do, by mixing fitness tips and talk with segments of workout, is provide doable ten minute chunks of activity that research says provides health and/or fitness benefits -

      and then go from there ;-)

      best wishes for you though, cause you obviously care -

      what works for me, is remembering, as i can ;-) that raising the bar, is a process…

    • Lizzie

      It’s easy for you “not to buy it”. Your job is exercise. I know working mothers who’s time is accounted for from 6 am to 11 pm every day. Maybe you have resources and affluence which others don’t. Millions of Americans need to jobs to barely make ends meet. You need to look around a bit before you admonish people.

    • Alina

      This woman’s expectations are unrealistic because she literally gets paid to exercise and can’t seem to understand most of us don’t. I bet if she was a single parent with kids, working 50 hours/ week in the type of job that requires putting on real pants, she might start buying why most folks don’t have 1 hour every day to hit the gym ;)

      Personally I exercise about 2 hours/week (30 mins every other day), which is less than the recommended amount, and I’m in great shape with a tiny figure, and this is after 3 pregnancies. There’s no doubt that sedentary lifestyles are unhealthy, but it amuses me that so many “fitness experts” seem to think we’ll all drop dead of heart disease if we’re not training for marathons…

    • Deborah Dunham

      HI Alina — thanks for your comments! It’s not so much about competing on who is busier (because we all lead busy lives these days), but more about making exercise a priority that we can all stick to and all support each other with. And just as an aside, I do work full-time at a desk, have two children and do all the other things so many women do while making sure exercise takes top priority when I start each day. And even when I was a personal trainer, I never got paid to exercise–I got paid to help other people exercise, which mostly included watching and encouraging them, not participating with them. Although that would have been nice!

      • Guy Larrivee

        LOVE this article! We all have the same 24 hours in a day. Setting the bar low is far too commonplace today. We have “participation” trophies and schools without grades. That’s not how the real world works.