Couch Potato or Weekend Warrior: What is the right amount of exercise?

Greg Dadekian with patient.

“Exercise helps manage weight and blood pressure which is why people who exercise have a lower risk of heart disease or heart attack,” says Gregory A. Dadekian, MD, Cardiovascular Medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC).

But how much exercise do we need? Can a person exercise too much? Dadekian describes the right amount of exercise and offers advice on how to build an exercise routine that works for you.

How can you tell if you’re not exercising enough?

The intensity of exercise is as important as the time spent exercising. If you walk the dog for 45 minutes but only go one mile, you’re probably not exercising with enough intensity to get much benefit. Beneficial exercise should make you a little short of breath, and you should sweat a bit.

What are some signs of overdoing it?

If you feel chest pain and are doubled over to catch your breath, you’re exercising too hard. Over-exertion or going from zero to 60 too quickly, can get you in trouble. People who don’t exercise at all and then do something strenuous like snow shoveling risk elevating their blood pressure, straining their heart, and hurting joints and muscles.

It’s important to warm up, especially before vigorous exercise. Take your time and take frequent breaks when you’re feeling out of breath.

Is there a right amount of exercise?

Some exercise is always better than no exercise. The American Heart Association guidelines call for either 150 minutes of moderately vigorous exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week. Moderately vigorous exercise should make you sweat a little and feel a little short of breath. You probably won’t be able to have a conversation while you’re exercising. Vigorous exercise makes you sweat a lot and leaves you out of breath.

What is an ideal exercise schedule or routine?

Exercise routines are very personal. For example, working parents will have a different schedule than retirees. Some people spread their exercise over the course of a week, while other’s fit their 150 minutes of exercise into one or two weekend sessions. Either routine offers benefit if you’re meeting exercise targets.

Grouping exercise sessions on the weekend can be more taxing on the body. Concentrated workouts are harder, and “weekend warriors” might be more prone to orthopaedic or muscle injury, especially as they age.

Do you have any advice for building an exercise routine?

It’s helpful to think about barriers to exercise and which of those barriers can be modified. For example, if you like to eat as soon as you get home from work and then find yourself too tired to exercise after making and picking up from dinner, have a late afternoon snack at work so you can exercise a bit before dinner.

Exercising with a partner or joining a team can help you stick to a schedule because you’ve committed to other people. Setting realistic goals also helps. If you’re out of shape, set a daily walking or biking goal rather than sign up for a marathon.

If you have a heart issue or are concerned about your heart health, talk to your provider before starting an exercise program. They might prescribe a stress test to ensure that starting an exercise routine is safe.

For more heart health tips, patient stories and information about treatment services and research, visit the  Dartmouth-Hitchcock Heart and Vascular Center.