If you want maximum health benefits, you’ll have to maximize your workout. A systematic review and meta-analysis have found that a high level of physical activity significantly reduces the risk of five health conditions: breast and colon cancers, diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and ischemic stroke. Published in the BMJ, the review and meta-analysis included findings from 174 human studies on the relationship between all types of physical activity (i.e., recreation, transportation, housework, etc.) and the risk of at least one of the five health conditions.
Researchers standardized physical activity measures across the studies, converting them into total metabolic equivalent (MET) minutes of activity per week. One MET is defined as the amount of oxygen taken in (or energy spent) by a person resting quietly for one minute. The METs for other activities are based on the relative oxygen or energy requirements of the activity. For this analysis, the researchers designated 4 METs for each minute spent in moderate-intensity activity and 8 METs for each minute spent in vigorous activity. Based on this frame of reference, 600 MET minutes per week (the amount the World Health Organization [WHO] recommends for health benefits) equals about 150 minutes of brisk walking or 75 minutes of running, per week. Researchers then compared the MET minutes of activity per week to the risk levels for each of the health conditions. After adjusting for factors like study quality, population size, and gender, researchers discovered that:
Risk reduction was relative to the amount of MET minutes achieved per week, and was highest in people achieving an activity level of 3,000 to 4,000 MET minutes per week. For example, an activity level of 600 MET minutes per week was associated with only a 2% lower risk of diabetes, while 3,600 MET minutes per week was associated with a 21% lower risk of diabetes.
Compared to getting less than 600 MET minutes of physical activity per week, getting 8,000 or more MET minutes of activity per week was associated with risk reductions of 14% for breast cancer, 21% for colon cancer, 28% for diabetes, 25% for ischemic heart disease, and 26% for ischemic stroke.
Getting 3,000 to 4,000 MET minutes of physical activity per week—about 12 to 16 hours of brisk walking or 6 to 8 hours of running—is much higher than the minimum recommendation by the WHO, and may sound like a part-time job. However, in truth, you don’t have to run a half-marathon every weekend to reach this amount. Instead, you can incorporate different types of physical activities into your daily routine, such as climbing stairs, commuting on foot or by bike, gardening, and vacuuming, and by the end of the week, it should all add up.