Your Ideal Workout Regimen Depends on How You Spend the Rest of Your Day

Woman doing yoga

Getty Images / Sara Monika

Key Takeaways

  • There is no one-size-fits-all formula to physical activity.
  • Thirty minutes of daily exercise is not enough for those who sit for more than seven hours a day.
  • Research found that three minutes of moderate to vigorous activity or 12 minutes of light activity for every hour of sitting is best for improving your long-term health.

Recommendations from the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans outlines that the average adult requires 150-300 minutes each week of moderate-intense aerobic activity or 75-150 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity.

Findings from an international study dispute these guidelines, finding that the recommended workout time varies, depending on how the rest of your waking day is spent.

Compared to studies pinpointing the impact of a specific activity on your health, this research set out to find the optimal combination of exercise “ingredients” to prolong life. Across six studies, more than 130,000 adults wore an activity monitor in the United States, United Kingdom, and Sweden.

Data from the monitors helped researchers determine how activity combinations and sedentary behavior might affect your mortality.

Intermittent Light Activity Plays Powerful Role in Life Expectancy

The study reveals that the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans' recommended minutes of daily moderate-to-vigorous exercise may reduce the mortality risk for some people by 80%—especially those who sit for seven hours or less. But the same is not true for individuals of a sedentary nature for 11-12 hours per day.

In fact, the research points to the importance of intermittent light activity, revealing that those who spend a handful of minutes engaging in moderate-to-vigorous activity were at a 30% lower risk of early death if they were also lightly active for six hours a day.

These findings echo those of a 2019 study by the American Cancer Society (ACS), which found that replacing 30 daily minutes of sitting with a form of light activity is associated with a higher life expectancy.

Keith Diaz, PhD,

While there will always be sitting in our lives, as with most things in life, it's about sitting in moderation. The key is to find the right balance of sedentary time and physical activity.

— Keith Diaz, PhD,

The ACS classifies the following as light activity:

  • A slow walk
  • Light housework
  • Cooking
  • Folding laundry
  • Putting away groceries
  • Washing dishes
  • Fishing

Is There Such A Thing As Too Much Exercise?

A very recent study saw six females and five males partake in a four-week training program comprised of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Participants experienced significant declines in mitochondria, which generate the majority of chemical energy to power up a cell, as well as issues with glucose tolerance.

Such findings highlight a need for an upper limit when exercising intensively to optimize recovery, keep your momentum and maintain equilibrium throughout the body.

The Optimal Combination of Exercise

To achieve the best exercise cocktail, Keith Diaz, PhD, certified exercise physiologist and assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, says: "While there will always be sitting in our lives, as with most things in life, it's about sitting in moderation. The key is to find the right balance of sedentary time and physical activity."

In terms of balance, the study concluded a cocktail formula of three to one as most ideal.

In other words, three minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity (or 12 minutes of light activity per one hour of sitting as optimal for improving your health and lowering the risk of early death.

"Our new formula gets at the right balance between moderate-to-vigorous exercise and sitting to help people lead a longer, healthier life," says Sebastien Chastin, PhD, professor of health behavior dynamics at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Based on this formula, the following groupings of activities were found to reduce the risk of early death by 30%:

  • Fifty-five minutes of exercise, four hours and 10 minutes of light physical activity, and almost 11 hours of sitting
  • Thirteen minutes of exercise, five and a half hours of light physical activity, and 10.3 hours of sitting
  • Three minutes of exercise, six and a quarter hours of light physical activity, and just under 10 hours of sitting

What This Means For You

Although the recommended 30 minutes of moderate-to-intense exercise five times a week has its many health benefits, research indicates we should follow a formula of three minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity or 12 minutes of light activity for each hour to best improve our health and increase our lifespan.

6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Services; 2018.

  2. Chastin S, McGregor D, Palarea-Albaladejo J, et al. Joint association between accelerometry-measured daily combination of time spent in physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep and all-cause mortality: a pooled analysis of six prospective cohorts using compositional analysis. Br J Sports Med. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2020-102345

  3. Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Different physical activity 'cocktails' have similar health benefits.

  4. Rees-Punia E, Evans EM, Schmidt MD, et al. Mortality risk reductions for replacing sedentary time with physical activitiesAm J Prev Med. 2019;56(5):736-741. doi:org/10.1016/j.amepre.2018.12.006

  5. American Cancer Society. Even light levels of physical activity provide benefits.

  6. Flockhart M, Nilsson LC, Tais S, Ekblom B, Apró W, Larsen FJ. Excessive exercise training causes mitochondrial functional impairment and decreases glucose tolerance in healthy volunteersCell Metab. 2021;33(5):957-970.e6. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2021.02.017