What Qualifies as Moderate Physical Activity?

Mother and young daughter doing yoga
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You've seen the suggestions and guidelines: You should be getting at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week. But what does that mean, exactly? Maybe you're getting the right amount of exercise without even realizing it. Or maybe you could be, with just a little more time and effort.

What Is Moderate Physical Activity?

The first step to understanding moderate activity is to break down what a MET is. It's an abbreviation for "Metabolic Equivalent for Task," and it refers to the amount of oxygen the body uses during physical activity. By assigning METs to an activity, we can compare the amount of exertion an activity takes, even among people of different weights.

For reference, your body uses 1 MET for basic functions, like breathing. When you get to 7 METs of effort, your physical activity is considered vigorous. So the spectrum is:

  • 1 MET: At rest
  • 2 METs: Light activity
  • 3-6 METs: Moderate activity
  • 7 or more METs: Vigorous activity

Moderate physical activity is exercise that requires 3 to 6 METs of effort. At this level, your breathing and heart rate become more rapid and your body burns about 3.5 to 7 calories per minute.

Examples of Moderate Exercise

To give you a real-life idea of what moderate exercise is, all of this qualifies: walking at about 3 miles per hour, cleaning your house, biking (10 mph or slower), doing water aerobics, ballroom dancing, or playing doubles tennis.

If you are moving and breathing a little harder than usual but can still carry on a conversation, your activity level is probably moderate. If it's hard to speak, and you are sweating, you've probably moved from moderate to vigorous activity.

Daily Exercise Recommendations

Because of the many health benefits of exercise, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services publishes guidelines on physical activity for Americans. For most people, including children, teens, adults, older adults, people with physical disabilities, and pregnant women, the guidelines suggest at least one hour of daily exercise. Most of that physical activity should be either moderate or vigorous.

At a minimum, adults should tally up 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate exercise per week, in bursts of at least 10 minutes each.

So if you get in a 20- to 30-minute walk, bike ride, or yoga session most days of the week, you'll meet your quota. But more (either in duration or intensity) is better, so do more if you can.

Tips for Measuring Exercise Effort

Instead of trying to determine how many METs you are using, you can also check your activity level by using the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (or RPE).

Using this scale means monitoring how you feel about your own activity level. At one end of this 20-point scale would be absolute stillness; at the top, sprinting as hard as you can.

The American Heart Association describes this continuum of effort like this:

  • 6: No exertion (sitting still or sleeping)
  • 7-8: Extremely light exertion
  • 9-10: Very light exertion
  • 11-12: Light exertion
  • 13-14: Somewhat hard exertion
  • 15-16: Heavy exertion
  • 17-18: Very heavy exertion
  • 20: Maximum exertion

Moderate activity is 11 to 14 on this scale. So exercise that benefits your body doesn't need to be limited to an intensive session at the gym. You can find physical activity in playing with your kids, running errands, socializing with friends, and more. What's most important is finding activities you enjoy, so you'll make time for them in your busy life.

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