Published January 30, 2009

How Much Exercise Is Enough to Lose Weight?

by Helen M. Ryan

The amount of exercise you need a day is a difficult question to answer.

Celebrities often claim they exercise two hours a day. On TV, weight loss shows feature people exercising more than four hours each day. Health advocates say 30 minutes of daily activity is enough to keep you healthy.

So…how much exercise do you really need?

The journal of the American College of Sports Medicine features revised exercise time recommendations for three categories: Preventing weight gain; weight loss; and preventing weight re-gain.

Preventing Weight Gain

It’s easier to keep your weight down than to try to lose what you’ve already gained. 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise, for example walking, is enough to do just that. Roughly translated, 150 minutes is about 30 minutes a day, five days a week.

Think that’s too much? How much time do you spend watching TV? Surfing the web? Talking on the phone? Sitting at a coffee shop? It’s probably more than 30 minutes every day. But the good news? Studies have shown that breaking your exercise session up, for example, into three 10-minute bouts, is just as effective as one longer session. So, walk during your morning break, take the stairs, or stroll with the kids home from school. Baby steps. 10-minute baby steps.

Weight Loss

More than 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity is recommended for modest weight loss benefits. But more than 250 minutes per week provides significantly greater amounts of weight loss.

250 minutes per week…how much is that per day? Hmmm. That’s about 50 minutes per day, five days a week. Still not that bad. A 20-minute walk in the early morning, a 10-minute walk during a break, and a 20-minute walk after dinner. Or a one hour group exercise class four days a week, plus one short walk.

Preventing Weight Regain

ACSM says more than 250 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity will prevent weight re-gain.

One would hope so, and yes…that is a lot. But for those of us who have lost a large amount of weight, our bodies will always fight to re-gain what we lost. We have to work harder than “non-previously overweight people.”

The Bottom Line

These are ACSM’s recommendations for “moderate-intensity physical activity.” But as many experts will tell you, there are ways to exercise less and still reap weight loss and health benefits.

Exercise at a higher intensity will burn more calories overall. Perform intervals while walking, running, or cycling (work very hard for 20 seconds, then recover for 10-60 seconds, work very hard again, then recover)

Do multiple-muscle or large muscle exercises (squats, lunges, side steps with a bicep curl, full pushups, ball rollouts), kettlebell training, boot camps, or circuit training.

Strength train. Like most fitness experts, ACSM also recommends strength training as part of a health and fitness regimen in order to increase muscle mass and reduce health risks.

My general rule of thumb? If you can read a magazine or text while you are exercising…it’s too easy. While you’re exercising focus on the work, and exercise harder, but for a shorter time period. Make each minute count. Walk and chat with your friends, sure, as part of your “30-minutes a day” general rule. But work with intensity for weight loss.