How can we get the exercise we need?

We all know that exercise is good for us. How can we act on what we know, to get the exercise we need?

Why do we need exercise?

We all know that exercise is good for us. It reduces the risk of a range of serious illnesses and improves our chances of living longer.

The Mayo Clinic identifies a range of other health benefits, such as helping us:

  • Get fit
  • Feel better about ourselves
  • Have more energy
  • Control weight
  • Enhance our cognitive abilities
  • Improve  our mood
  • Improve our sex life 

Exercise also seems to be good for our mental health, with a 2013 review identifying that it can be effective for depressive disorders. 

In fact exercise has been described as ‘the miracle cure’ by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges.

The only caveat is that, depending on their genes, a minority of people receive more limited benefit. That’s according to Heritage Family Study a large scale, long term American study.

How much exercise do we need? 

30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity (like brisk walking, swimming, dancing or mowing the lawn) 5 times a week i.e. around 150 minutes per week, plus strength training exercises a couple of days a week. 

That’s what health organisations like the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), the US National Institutes for Health (NIH) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommend for adults. 

The WHO suggests that more exercise (like 300 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week) provides ‘additional health benefits.’ 

If you prefer more vigorous aerobic exercise then running, jogging, fast cycling, playing football, singles tennis, squash, gymnastics and aerobic dancing are all options.

Examples of strength training, to provide additional health benefits, include weight bearing exercises (like weight training and climbing stairs) as well as activities such as heavy gardening (like digging and hedge trimming).

What can we do if we’re short of time or will power? 

Fortunately there are a range of options available to us: 

1. Take opportunities to be more active in our everyday lives 

The WHO defines “physical activity” as any form of bodily movement that uses energy. This means we’re not limited to sports or the gym. Here is a selection from the many ways we can build more physical activity into our daily lives: 

  • At work go and talk to colleagues, instead of phoning or emailing
  • Get off the bus or metro a stop early
  • Gardening and housework
  • Hobbies that involve working with your hands (like painting, woodwork and bread making)
  • Park on the far side of the car park
  • Stand on the train, instead of sitting down (on some trains you may have no choice but standing makes your body work harder than sitting)
  • Use a basket instead of a shopping trolley and carry groceries home
  • Walk while you’re on the phone (mobiles make this easier)
  • Walk up the stairs instead of taking a lift/elevator
  • Wash the car yourself, instead of using a car wash 

This is in line with the NEAT (non exercise activity thermogenesis) concept i.e. that common daily activities, such as fidgeting, walking and standing help us consume energy and reduce the risk of obesity. 

The health benefits may not be as extensive as for exercise itself but are a useful complement we can consciously incorporate into our daily lives. 

2. You don’t have to go it alone 

Age Watch’s research into health behaviour change (which we will be publishing later this year) suggests that exercising with family, friends or colleagues is often easier to maintain. This is partly because the exercise then becomes an enjoyable social activity and partly because we can encourage and support one another. 

As we report elsewhere on Age Watch there are also a wide range of classes available, from ballroom dancing to Zumba, from Keep Fit to Tai Chi. Some people find that meeting at the same time every week helps establish a routine and maintain commitment. 

3. Buy a pedometer or similar health app 

Checking how much you’re walking can become pleasantly addictive and keep you focused. 

4. HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)  

If you are truly short of time this is a possible option. The idea is to make 100% effort through quick, intense bursts of exercise followed by short, sometimes active, recovery periods. An example would be short ‘all out’ bursts on an exercise bike, as part of a longer 10 – 15 minute session. A 2012 study reported positive results, comparable with moderate intensity continuous training. 

However, HIIT is very tiring, so requires good motivation and a basic level of fitness.

5. Prioritise

If we sleep 8 hours a night that means we’re awake for 112 hours a week.2 ½ hours a week to secure all the health benefits of exercise should be manageable for most of us - and a worthwhile investment of our time.


  • Exercise has proven mental and physical health benefits for most people.
  • The usual guideline is at least 150 minutes of moderately intense aerobic activity per week.
  • Simply incorporating more physical activity into our everyday life is another option.
  • If we are really short of time HIT is a possibility - provided we have the motivation and basic fitness.
  • Exercising with friends, family, colleagues and apps can all help keep us motivated.

Michael Baber November 2018.