The minimum exercise required, or what counts as "enough" for good health, is the same for men and women. The American Heart Association and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend a minimum of 150 minutes per week of moderate cardio work and at least two days per week of strength training. Moderate cardio would be the equivalent of walking briskly. Beyond that, what is enough will vary depending on your goals and health risks.
Effects of Minimum Workouts
The minimum requirements are what it takes to maintain your current weight and reduce your risks of developing cardiovascular disease, elevate your mood and keep your bones strong. A study published in "BMC Public Health Journal" in 2012 showed that overweight individuals adhering to just the minimum requirements for cardio and strength training saw significant improvement in their cardiovascular risks as well as a loss in body fat.
While the BMC study participants also lost body weight with a combination of minimum cardio and strength training, MayoClinic.com and the CDC say it can take as much as 250 to 300 minutes of cardio exercise per week to lose weight. So, if weight loss is your goal, then what is "enough" exercise increases considerably. Doing more vigorous exercise, like jogging or using an elliptical, can cut your time in half. At the same time, strength training just twice per week is still sufficient.
An important distinction to note is that the minimum recommendations are for moderate "activity" not just "exercise." Pushing a lawn mower, vacuuming using brisk motions or going up and down stairs several times a day all count, as long as you do them in at least 10-minute intervals. So, a mom who chases a toddler morning till bedtime will probably not require as much cardio work to stay healthy as a woman who spends most of her day sitting at a desk. However, a comparison of studies published in the "American Journal of Cardiology" in 2006 appeared to show greater cardiovascular benefits from vigorous versus moderate-intensity workouts.
While minimum requirements apply to adult women of all ages, those who are approaching menopause or who are post-menopausal should include some weight-bearing cardio in their workouts to keep bones strong. Walking on a hard surface is the best weight-bearing exercise, followed by walking on a treadmill. Ellipticals involve less weight bearing, while stationary bikes and swimming, though they provide good cardio benefits, are not weight bearing.
The minimum strength-training requirement means working each major muscle group -- chest, upper and lower back, shoulders, legs, arms and abs -- at least twice each week doing at least one set of 15 repetitions for each exercise. You can work more days, but as it requires a 48- to 72-hour rest period between working each muscle group for those muscles to grow, more than three days per week probably won't increase the benefits much. Women don't tend to "bulk up" as much as men, so if your goal is to build large muscles rather than just stay fit, you will need to do more sets and repetitions at heavier weights.
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: Chapter 2-Physical Activity Has Many Health Benefits
- BMC Public Health Journal: The Effect of 12 Weeks Aerobic, Resistance, or Combination Exercise ... the Overweight and Obese in Randomized Trials
- American Journal of Cardiology: Comparison of Cardioprotective Benefits from Moderate vs. Vigorous...Exercise
- Sports Medicine: Exercise Health for Early Menopausal Women...
- CDC: How Much Physical Activity Do Adults Need?
- American Heart Association: Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults
- MayoClinic.com: Exercise for Weight Loss
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