With all that’s going on in our crazy-busy lives, getting more exercise than we’d anticipated each week is always a huge moment of celebration. But a new study suggests even your most successful workout weeks might not be cutting it.
According to a recent review of research published in The BMJ, you should be getting way more exercise than what global health experts are currently recommending. Especially if one of your goals with working out is lowering your risk of serious diseases like breast cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
“Scientists believe that exercise helps our bodies fight disease by improving circulation, which helps immune cells detect and fight illnesses, and by temporarily raising body temperature, which helps the body fight infection better,” Daria Long Gillespie, an emergency room physician and senior vice president of clinical strategy at the digital health company Sharecare tells Allure. “It also slows down the release of stress-related hormones and may protect telomeres, the tips of our DNA that guard against early aging damage.”
To figure out how much and what kinds of physical activity we really need to boost these effects, researchers looked at almost 200 previous studies that examined the link between exercise and one of five chronic diseases: breast or colon cancer, diabetes, stroke, or heart disease.
They found that although the World Health Organization officially recommends a minimum 600 MET (metabolic equivalent) minutes a week to stay healthy, significantly more benefits are seen around 3,000 to 4,000 MET minutes—about six times more. For the non–exercise physiologists out there, a single MET minute is defined as the amount of energy a person consumes per unit of body weight during one minute of rest. It’s the official way of quantifying how hot you burn, and it’s how scientists correct for the difference in metabolisms between say, a fit twentysomething woman versus an overweight elderly man.
The harder the activity, the more MET minutes you rack up, so spending 30 minutes jogging earns you way more MET minutes than spending a half hour streaming OITNB (about seven times more). Still, even if you focus on high-MET-value activities like jogging, it would take you about seven hours on the treadmill to reach 3,000 MET minutes a week—not always doable. Luckily, research from Sharecare shows that even when you can’t quite meet that mark, even just ten extra minutes a day helps, says Gillespie. And that’s especially true if you’re currently getting less than 600 MET minutes.
“The data very clearly shows that for someone who does not exercise at all, even small increases of ten minutes a day can have significant improvements in their health, cutting their risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and death,” she says. If you’re already getting more than 600 MET minutes, you’ll still see health benefits from more exercise; they’ll just be less statistically significant.