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  • In a new large-scale study, researchers say higher levels of weekly exercise minutes can help lower the risk of early death.
  • They said the results varied depending on the total number of minutes and the intensity of the exercise.
  • Experts say you can develop a successful weekly exercise routine by setting realistic goals, doing a variety of exercises, and alternating the intensity.

Adding more physical activity to your weekly schedule can help you live longer.

That’s according to a new study published today that reports higher levels of long-term vigorous activity and moderate physical activity are independently and jointly associated with lower mortality.

In the study, a total of 116,221 adults from the Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-up Study (1988–2018) answered a questionnaire with detailed self-reports of leisure-time physical activity.

These reports were repeated as many as 15 times with some participants.

Researchers analyzed the data based on the association between long-term leisure-time physical activity intensity and all-cause and cause-specific mortality.

During 30 years of follow-up, the researchers recorded 47, 596 deaths. Someone meeting long-term leisure-time guidelines reduced their risk of all-cause mortality by 81% as well as 69% for cardiovascular disease.

The researchers reported that meeting the moderate physical activity guidelines resulted in a 19 to 25% lower risk of all-cause and cardiovascular disease as well as non-cardiovascular disease mortality.

Participants reporting 2 to 4 times above the recommended minimum of long-term leisure-time activity (150-299 minutes per week) or moderate activity (300-599 minutes per week), had 2 to 4% and 3 to 13% additional lower mortality.

Finally, the researchers’ analysis demonstrated that mortality risk was reduced when you add exercise to a routine that previously reported less than 300 minutes per week.

However, among those who reported more than 300 minutes per week of long-term leisure-time activity, additional leisure-time activity did not appear to be associated with lower mortality.

“This is an important study because of its size with over 100,000 participants and long-term follow-up of over 30 years,” said Dr. Jeffrey Neal Berman with Hartford HealthCare Heart & Vascular Institute St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Connecticut and chair of cardiology at St. Vincent’s Medical Center.

“And it clearly shows that a combination of moderate physical activity and vigorous physical activity can reduce mortality significantly,” Berman told Healthline.

“The findings suggest that any combination of medium to high levels of vigorous physical activity and moderate physical activity can provide nearly the maximum mortality reduction of 35 to 40 percent, which is quite an impressive mortality reduction,” he added. “Most importantly, people who do not exercise much can get greater benefits of mortality reduction by adding a modest level of either vigorous or moderate physical activity.”

Dr. Wesley Milks, a cardiologist and clinical assistant professor of internal medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Healthline the research is an interesting analysis of several well-known observational studies.

“The ‘dose-dependent’ effect of increasing physical activity extended to about four times the minimum recommendations for Americans, the minimum levels defined as 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity accumulated throughout each week,” he said.

“Beyond 600 minutes of moderate activity or 300 minutes of vigorous activity, there was no significant additional benefit seen, although importantly no apparent harms observed,” Milks noted.

“This provides good evidence that exercise is important in reducing health problems both related and unrelated to the cardiovascular system (e.g. heart attack and stroke),” he added.

“It’s difficult to totally eliminate the risk of bias in such studies (e.g. are inactive people inherently sicker which drives them to be inactive), but to me the methodology of the study appears sound and takes efforts to minimize bias, thus trying to estimate the true treatment effect of the physical activity itself,” Milks said.

Jamie Costello, CPT, MSC, the vice president of Fitness and Sales at Pritikin Longevity Center says he’s not surprised by these findings, either.

“I was not surprised to see that more equals better when it comes to physical activity’s role in mortality risk reduction,” he told Healthline. “As an avid exerciser and recreational athlete who is in his mid-50s, physical activity plays a major role in my life, and I was pleased to see evidence that supports a commitment of 60 to 90 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous exercise and activity.”

“While I would not recommend these levels to novice exercisers, it does provide additional motivation to those of us who love to lead an active life,” Costello said.

“It’s important to remember that moderate aerobic physical activity is often defined as activity exceeding three metabolic equivalents, or METs, examples of which can be simply a brisk walk, household tasks or projects, or light sports,” said Milks.

“Our guidelines also suggest getting some strengthening exercises at least two days per week,” he added

“Some people who may find exercise intimidating can be reminded that we don’t necessarily need gym memberships and Spandex to get regular physical activity,” he noted.

“For some, changes such as biking to work, walking from a farther space in the parking lot, taking the stairs rather than the elevator, or converting some of our evening couch time to outdoor walks (especially in the lighter summer months) may in sum result in big lifestyle shifts and, ultimately, health benefits,” said Milks.

Set realistic goals

Berman says he recommends that people set realistic goals.

“For most people, exercising for an hour three times a week is possible,” he said.

“Oftentimes when people set out to exercise five times a week they have trouble reaching that goal and become discouraged,” he added.

“But by committing to a minimum of three times a week and trying to hit that goal every week, that can be successful.”

Do a variety of physical activities

Berman also recommends that people mix it up.

“Vigorous activity in this study included jogging, running, swimming, bicycling, and racquet sports such as squash, racquetball, and tennis,” he said. “Even working outdoors and climbing stairs were considered to be vigorous activities.”

“Moderate activity, including walking, low intensity exercise, weightlifting, and calisthenics is also quite beneficial,” he added.

Switch up the intensity

The combination of vigorous and moderate exercise can provide maximum benefits, Berman added.

“The important thing is just to show up and to continue to show up consistently over a long period of time, and that is why I try to have my patients set realistic goals for themselves,” he said.

The bottom line, says Berman, is to set realistic goals, get moving, and exercise three to five times per week.

Costello’s tips for increasing physical activity goals include:

1. Exercise first thing in the morning.

2. Do any exercises you find harder, first.

3. Reward yourself with the activities you enjoy at the end.

4. Make sure you do something that challenges you three times a week. Whether that breaking a major sweat or lifting a weight that is hard to finish at the end of the set, accomplishing the difficult strengthens not only the body but also builds character.

5. Set a specific goal the day before and lay out your outfit or pack your bag where you can’t avoid it in the morning.

6. Have a plan but be flexible. Not just by stretching but also by recognizing that daily activity can have an endless variety of intensity vs. time. Little time? Increase the intensity. Don’t have a lot of energy? Take it slow and go longer.

7. Don’t let a routine turn into a rut. Have at least a seasonal variety of exercise and activities to fill your year. Take advantage of the weather and intermix indoor and outdoor activities based on your climate.

8. Create mini-rewards and milestone rewards to help your motivation.

9. Have an accountability partner if not a workout partner. Share your goals on social media if you don’t have an in-person workout partner.

10. Hire a coach to set up a safe and effective plan. Make sure to look for someone with credentials, degrees, and empathy vs just an inspiring body type.

11. Start tomorrow. Don’t wait for Monday or January.