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Women's Health

Why 30 Minutes of Physical Activity a Day Isn’t Enough

It's "not as simple as checking off that ‘exercise’ box on your to-do list," according to a new study.

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We’ve all heard this classic fitness guideline before: Exercise 30 minutes a day, and you’re the picture of health! Yes, just 30 minutes of movement is all it takes. But have you ever stopped to think about what 30 minutes is compared with your entire day? 

Two percent. Just two percent of your whole day. When you put it that way, it doesn’t sound like much.

A study released by Columbia University Irving Medical Center questioned that well-known standard, pulling data from more than 130,000 adults in the United Kingdom, United States and Sweden to see how different combinations of exercise, light activity and sedentary behavior affect mortality.

“For decades, we’ve been telling people that the way to stay healthy is to get at least 30 minutes of exercise five days a week,” says study author Keith Diaz, Ph.D., assistant professor of behavioral medicine and director of the exercise testing laboratory at the Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. “Is it really possible that our activity habits for just 2 percent of the day is all that matters when it comes to health?”

The truth is, the benefits of exercising 30 minutes a day — no matter how vigorously — depend on how you spend the rest of the day, according to the study. So if you go for a jog in the morning and then lay on the couch all day, that jog means bupkis. 

Sitting on the couch
Photo: GettyImages

Researchers explain that the average human requires a cocktail of movement throughout the day. Sure, a jog in the morning is a great way to get moving, but keep it going later in the day by taking a walk, stretching or even doing some housework. Basically, do whatever it takes to be on your feet and moving. “In other words, it is not as simple as checking off that ‘exercise’ box on your to-do list,” says Diaz.

“Getting 30 minutes of physical activity per day, or 150 minutes per week, is what’s currently recommended, but you still have the potential to undo all that good work if you sit too long,” says lead study author Sebastien Chastin, Ph.D, professor of health behavior dynamics at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland.

Just like every great cocktail has a recipe, so does healthy movement. Researchers found that getting three minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity or 12 minutes of light activity per hour of sitting reduces the risk of early death.

There’s more than one way to make a cocktail, though! Below are even more potential combinations. 

  • 55 minutes of exercise, 4 hours of light physical activity, and 11 hours of sitting.
  • 13 minutes of exercise, 5.5 hours of light physical activity, and 10.3 hours of sitting.
  • 3 minutes of exercise, 6 hours of light physical activity, and 9.7 hours of sitting.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to day-to-day movement, so find what works for you and rock it! In the simplest of terms, all you have to do is keep moving. 

Because you’re better than giving just two percent!