We know we’re supposed to exercise, and we know we’re supposed to do it often. But how often? What’s the most effective exercise routine to extend your longevity? According to researchers, the good news is that exercise routines can vary day to day and still be equally effective.
“It’s recommended that you exercise for at least 150 minutes a week,” says Keith Diaz, assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. “You can exercise 30 minutes a day for five days, you can do longer workouts on the weekends or anything in between. All that matters is that you get it in.”
In findings published last year in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Diaz’s team found that for those who sat for less than seven hours per day, 150 minutes of exercise per week reduced their risk of early death by 80 percent. It did not, however, reduce the risk for those who sat for more than 10 hours per day. Diaz also cautions that while you can do it all at once and reap the health benefits, it might put you at an increased risk for injury.
“If you go out and do it all at once you might hurt yourself, especially if you’re not used to it,” he says.
Exercise is a Magic Pill
When it comes to longevity, there is no better tool than exercise because it changes us down to the cellular level, says Diaz. For example, exercise keeps the cells along your blood vessels that help them expand and constrict, expanded. This lowers your blood pressure and overall risk of cardiovascular disease.
What’s more, exercise helps the body to lower blood sugar, improve cholesterol and even stave off certain types of cancer. And maybe even more importantly, it improves your mood. A large 2018 study of 1.2 million individuals published in Lancet Psychiatry found that regular exercise “significantly and meaningfully” improved self-reported mental health in study participants.
“If you could bottle the benefits of exercise up in a pill, everyone would want it,” says Diaz.
However, a small amount of research has shown that excessive exercise, for example, those who run ultra-marathons and triathlons, can damage the heart. One study published in the journal Current Sports Medicine Reports found that “very high doses of exercise may be associated with an increased risk of atrial fibrillation, coronary artery disease and malignant ventricular arrhythmias.”
But Diaz says that the research is scarce. With so few people who exercise in excess, researchers have had trouble gathering them for a study. “We still don’t have enough data to find any upper limit for exercise,” he says.
What’s the Best Type of Exercise For Longevity?
While all types of exercise are helpful, if you could only choose one type, Diaz contends it should be cardio. Cardio exercise — including brisk walking, running, cycling and swimming — raises your heart rate and respiration into the moderate or more vigorous zone and keeps your heart muscle in good shape.
“If you’re pressed for time, cardio is most important,” he says.
But that doesn’t mean that other forms of exercise don’t extend longevity. Weight bearing exercise, done a few times per week, keeps your body functional into old age. Research published in the journal Preventative Medicine Reports found that weight bearing exercises, like lifting weights and more vigorous forms of yoga, help to improve skeletal and bone health with age.
“It’s not just about living a long life, you want to be mobile for as long as possible too,” says Diaz.
Stretching classes like yoga and Pilates help to keep the muscles healthy so you can exercise late into old age without getting injured. “The beauty of exercise is that it’s beneficial no matter when you start. Even if you don’t start exercising until you’re 60, it’s still proven to improve your health,” says Diaz.
And when it comes to the best type of exercise for longevity, Diaz is hesitant to choose just one. “The best type of exercise is one that you’ll do regularly and that means you need to love it.”