USDA Exercise Guidelines


Regular physical activity is essential to weight control and good physical and mental health. The government has put physical activity on a par with nutrition and calorie control for achieving a healthy lifestyle as well as short- and long-term weight loss. Cutting calories alone just doesn't cut it anymore. In this article, we will explain the USDA exercise guidelines, and look at the different ways for you to get your heart pumping.

What the USDA Dietary Guidelines Recommend

For the first time, the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans spell out how much physical activity you need. They recommend:
  • At least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity, above your usual activity, on most days of the week to reduce the risk of chronic disease in adulthood. Greater health benefits, say the Guidelines, can be reaped with a more intense program or one that is of longer duration.

  • About 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity activity most days of the week to help manage body weight and prevent gradual, unhealthy body-weight gain in adulthood.

  • At least 60 to 90 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity daily to sustain weight loss in adulthood.
Where to Start?

If your primary physical activity right now is walking to the refrigerator, you may be in a bit of a panic after reading the recommendations. But before you dismiss them as impossible standards, there are a few things you should know:
  • You can divide up the time any way you want throughout the day. It's the accumulated total that's important. Three to six 10-minute bouts over the course of a day will do the trick, according to the Guidelines.

  • You can start with small steps geared toward your weight and fitness level. Adding physical activity to your day can be a gradual process.

  • You can always do a little more than you are now. If walking around your living room twice is more than the usual amount of activity you do, then start with that. Soon you might be able to take a lap around the yard or go half a block down the street.

  • You can build activity into your day in simple ways that don't take up a lot of extra time.

  • You can count much of the movement you do in a day as physical activity. Household chores, yard work, walking to the bus stop or walking the dog, carrying groceries, and grocery shopping all burn calories.
Did the "You Can" message come through loud and clear? Good!

Controlling the Calorie Burn

Whether you participate in a structured physical activity or just try to add extra movement to your day, the number of calories you burn is determined by several factors. You have control over all of them:
  • Frequency. The more often you move, the more calories you use. The USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend being active most or all days of the week.

  • Time. The more time you spend moving, the more calories you burn. The USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend 30 to 90 minutes of activity most or all days.

  • Intensity. The more intense or strenuous the activity, the more calories you burn. If you are short on time, step up the intensity. That way you can burn the same number of calories that you would doing the activity at a lower intensity for a longer time.

  • Your weight. The more you weigh, the more calories it takes to move your body. That means someone who weighs 300 pounds will burn more calories walking for 10 minutes than someone who weighs 150 pounds. That's not a good reason, however, to hang on to extra pounds!
Getting Started

It's never too late to get started being physically active or to increase the amount and intensity of the activity you do. Anyone, from small children to nonagenarians, can reap the benefits of physical activity. If you haven't been very active for some time, start slowly. Perhaps try for just 5 or 10 minutes of low-intensity activity such as walking, then gradually work up to 30 minutes or more each day.

Start with what you can manage, then move on to more from there. Be active at a pace that is comfortable for you. It doesn't have to be hard or uncomfortable to be effective -- and it should never be painful. No matter what shape you are in, work up to your goals gradually to give your heart and muscles time to adjust. Slowly increase the intensity of the movement, the amount of time you spend being active, and the heaviness of the weight you're lifting. You'll be more likely to build strength and stamina if you take small achievable steps rather than attempting giant leaps that may set you back.

The step-by-step approach also decreases your chances of injury. If you have a chronic health problem such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, or heart disease, check with your health-care provider before starting an exercise program. Ask what type and amount of physical activity is right for you. If you haven't been active and are otherwise healthy, you can start a sensible activity program without medical consultation or testing. However, if you're going to begin a program of vigorous activity, you should first speak to your physician if you are a man over age 40 or a woman over age 50.

In the next section we will discuss the different aerobic activities and how to determine which one works best for your lifestyle.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Types of Aerobic Activity

All physical activity will help you lose weight and improve your health. But to burn the most calories and get the most health benefits from your activity program, try to include the three basic types of physical activity -- aerobic exercise (also called cardiovascular conditioning), strength-building exercise, and stretching -- in your movement program.

Each type of activity burns calories yet provides its own unique health and weight-control benefits. Together, these three activities give your body the ability to carry out the activities of daily living throughout your life. Just carrying a bag of groceries up the front steps requires cardiovascular health, flexibility, strength, and endurance! So don't disregard the value of each type of activity.

Instead, figure out a way to add some of each to your routine. Your metabolism gets a little boost from physical activity for a brief period of time after you stop. Research on the matter is conflicting, and the duration and magnitude of any post-exercise increase in metabolism is dependent upon the intensity and duration of the exercise itself. The amount of calories burned after exercise during recovery is not much, especially following moderately intense activities. But every little bit helps tip that calorie-balance scale toward weight loss. In the next few sections, we will cover each of these types of physcial activity. Let's begin with an examination of aerobic activity.

Aerobic Activity

Aerobic activity is the kind that uses the large muscles in your arms and legs, getting your heart rate up and making you breathe harder. Aerobic exercises, such as walking, biking, and jogging, are good for your cardiovascular system because they strengthen your heart, lower your blood pressure, and improve your circulation. And there's no substitute for aerobic activity when it comes to calorie burning and fat burning.

Experts recommend that you work at a moderate level of intensity, at least when you first begin an aerobic exercise program. There are two ways to tell whether you're at the moderate level. The simplest is the "talk test." If you can still carry on a conversation and the activity feels somewhat hard, then you're probably working at the right pace. If it's too difficult to talk and you find yourself panting, slow down. That indicates you're pushing yourself too hard.

If you're breathing easy and can belt out a tune while you're working out, you need to pick up the pace a bit to burn fat. For a more precise measure of the intensity of your activity, check your heart rate by taking your pulse during your workout. For the most accurate count, take your pulse for 10 seconds and multiply by 6 to get your pulse-per-minute count. Your pulse rate begins to drop as soon as you stop to take it, so taking it for a full minute would not give you an accurate reading. For optimal results, you should be working within your target heart rate zone, which is 60 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate per minute.

The estimated maximum heart rate -- and the target heart rate zone -- are based on your age. Subtract your age from 220, and you'll get your estimated maximum heart rate. Multiply by 0.60 and 0.85 to find the upper and lower ends of your target zone. Or use the following chart:

Target Heart Rate
Use the following chart to find the upper and lower ends of your target hear rate.
 Age  Target Heart Rate
20 120-170
25
117-166
30
114-162
35 111-157
40
108-153
45
105-149
50
102-145
55
99-140
60
96-136
65
93-132
70
90-128

If your pulse is below your target heart rate, increase your rate of activity. If your pulse is above your target zone, decrease the intensity of your activity. One of the best and easiest aerobic activities you can do is walking. It's easy to fit into your day, and you can do it almost anywhere.

Whether you walk around your neighborhood at home, at work, or around the track at a nearby school, walking gets you moving without any fuss. All you need are some good sport shoes, loose clothing, and a water bottle. Increasing your pace and pumping your arms as you walk boosts the intensity and the amount of calories expended without putting in any additional time. If weather is inclement, have a backup plan, such as walking in an enclosed shopping mall. Many people fit aerobic activity into their mornings before work, during their lunch hour, and/or after dinner. It's up to you, and your plan can be flexible.

Examples of moderate-intensity aerobic activity include but are not limited to:
  • Brisk walking

  • Bike riding

  • Dancing

  • Jogging

  • Hiking

  • Skiing

  • Skating

  • Swimming -- especially good if you have joint problems

  • Household chores

  • Yard work

  • Most sports
It's a good idea to stretch your muscles after you work out to allow the muscles to release and relax, as well as to improve flexibility. Spend a few minutes gently stretching your muscles as you finish your walk or cool down.

Now that we've covered aerobic activity, it's time to cover the other major kind of exercise. Strength training involves weight and resistance training. We'll explore both topics in the next section.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Types of Strength Training

Strength-training activities are not sustained over a period of time. Instead, they are activities such as weight lifting, yoga, and calisthenics, that require short bursts of effort. Strength training burns calories, though not as many as aerobic activity. More importantly, these activities build and strengthen muscle, increasing your muscle-to-fat ratio. Remember, the more muscle mass you have, the faster your metabolism idles, burning more calories even at rest.

Benefits of Strength Training

Strength training offers many additional benefits. It
  • increases bone density

  • strengthens joints

  • improves your balance and stability

  • increases your ability to do everyday tasks and with less fatigue

  • improves posture

  • reduces low back pain in some people

  • makes your body appear slimmer, more toned, and younger
What strength training does not do, however, is make fat leave any particular spot on your body. Fat gets used up throughout the body when you burn more calories than you consume -- it's the calorie-balance story. But you can tone the muscles that lie beneath the fat stores. Then as the fat diminishes, the toned muscles are revealed and you look trimmer. Building or toning muscles occurs when your muscles work against a load (weight) or a resistance. The load can be the weight of your own body, when you do push-ups, leg lifts, abdominal crunches, and squats.

Or you can use actual weights as a load, such as small hand weights, dumbbells, weight machines, resistance bands, or medicine balls. The muscle cells adapt to the extra workload in ways that first make you stronger and then, after regular strength training for some time, increase muscle size. Don't worry about getting bulky; the moderate strength training discussed here won't bulk you up.

Basics of Strength Training

Knowing the fundamentals will help you get the most out of your strength-training program while preventing injury.
  • How Often? Experts recommend strength training two to three days each week, but not all in a row. Muscles need 48 hours to recover, repair, and grow before working again. You can strength train most days if you don't do a full body workout. Just alternate the muscle groups you work: One day work your upper body and the next day your lower body.

  • Breathing. To get the most out of your strength-training routine, be sure to breathe. That may sound obvious, but many people unconsciously hold their breath. Be deliberate about breathing. Exhale at the point of greatest exertion or when you're lifting a weight. Inhale as your muscles relax or you lower a weight. Breathing properly may help keep blood pressure from going too high, and it may decrease your chances of becoming light-headed or dizzy.

  • How Many? Repetitions, also known as "reps" in strength-training lingo, refer to the number of times you perform an activity, such as doing lunges, extending stretch bands, or lifting hand weights. A set refers to the number of repetitions you perform in a row before resting. The standard guideline for increasing muscle strength is to do two sets of 10 to 12 reps. If you can't complete 10 reps with the weight you're using, the weight is too heavy. If you can do 15 at the end of your second set, the weight you're using is too light. Remember that you'll need different weights for different exercises. Exercises that involve multiple muscle groups and/or multiple joints, such as a bent-over row, can manage a heavier weight than those that use only a single muscle group or weight, such as a biceps curl.

    As you get stronger, you can increase the number of reps and sets you do to keep building muscle. That's true for any strength training, whether it's with or without actual weights.
    No matter how many you do, it should take 4 to 6 seconds to complete one repetition. Be sure to perform each rep slowly and with control.

  • Rest Between Sets. Muscles need to rest between sets. For instance, if you are instructed to do three sets of 12 lunges, you'll do 12 lunges, rest, do 12 more, rest, and do 12 more. Muscles need time to recover, and that takes about 30 to 60 seconds for the recommended 10 to 12 reps.
Strength Training Equipment

Some strengthening equipment is portable, while others are not. Here's the lowdown on what's available to tone and develop your muscles.

Stretch Bands. Stretch bands, also called resistance bands, look like giant rubber bands. Buy them in the sporting goods section of a variety store or purchase about four feet of surgical tubing and tie a large loop in each end.

Here are some ways to use them to strengthen your muscles:
  • Seated Row: In seated position, wrap band around bottom of feet, holding either end. Pull band back, bending your elbows and pulling to either side of body so the shoulder blades squeeze together. Do not let shoulders creep up. This movement is like rowing a boat and works back muscles.

  • Single leg press: Loop band around just one foot. Bend leg at the knee and lift leg slightly off floor. Press foot into band, straightening at the knee, a little like stomping the accelerator. Continue to bend and straighten, keeping the leg suspended off the floor, until you're finished with the set.

  • Triceps overhead press. Hold the band in one hand, then raise that arm up over your head as if to scratch the back of your neck. Put your other hand behind your back and grab the loose end of the band. Now holding the lower hand in place, extend your other hand over your head to stretch the band up high. (This gets rid of those floppy underarms!)

  • Seated arm curls. Loop the band under your feet, as in the seated row. With your palms up, keep elbows at your side while you do the curls.
Your Body. You can't get simpler or more convenient than this! Put your body to work, making it the weight that your muscles need to resist. Here's how:
  • Do modified push-ups, resting on your knees.

  • Do standing push-ups, facing a wall.

  • Slowly lower into a sitting position while leaning against a wall.

  • Do repetitions of abdominal crunches (modified sit-ups), side-lying leg lifts, and squats.

  • Do different kinds of lunges; they're great for building large muscle groups in the lower body. Support yourself with one hand on a chair or wall. Place your right leg about three feet or two strides in front of your left. Keeping your back straight and placing your free hand on your hips, slowly lower your body, keeping your weight evenly distributed between your legs and making sure your right knee doesn't extend beyond your ankle. Push back up into a standing position. Repeat four times and switch legs. You can build up to 10 to 15 lunges on each side.
Medicine Ball. A medicine ball is a training tool that serves as a weight. Typically made of synthetic rubber, it is almost like a soccer ball filled with heavy sand. Medicine balls range in weight from 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) to 8 kilograms. They can be used for a complete body workout, providing resistance through a full range of motion. A medicine ball is especially good if you're training for a particular sport and want to practice the pattern of movement in your chosen sport to strengthen the muscles involved. You can do many different types of movements with a medicine ball either standing, sitting, or lying down. From straight-arm throws and torso twists to abdominal curls and double-leg kicks, a 30-minute workout can exercise all your muscle groups. Books on strength conditioning with medicine balls will give you the details you need to safely use this tool.

Expert Advice. You'll get the most from strength training if you get some expert advice. A personal trainer can teach you proper form and provide a personalized training program. Even an hour session will go a long way toward improving your technique and maximizing your workout. A low-cost alternative, though not as helpful, is to rent or buy some fitness videos. They will demonstrate proper form, and they'll show you an array of moves that will keep your strength-training workout fresh and ensure that you train all your muscle groups most effectively.

In the next section, we will cover another important part of daily exercise: stretching properly!

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Stretching Properly

Stretching feels great -- especially if you've been in one position for any length of time. It comes naturally to us at those times. But structured stretching has special advantages. Stretching helps us to
  • reduce muscle tension

  • improve flexibility

  • increase range of movement

  • increase blood circulation a bit
Stretching is simple and easy to do -- and it can be done just about anywhere without any special equipment. Consider taking a five-minute stretch break for every two hours you spend sitting or driving. You'll feel refreshed with a stretching routine that goes from head to toe.

Exercise While You Sit
If you spend most of your time sitting down because of physical ailments, be active in your chair. There are books and videos for getting fit while you sit. Start with easy, low-intensity moves, and gradually progress to an entire aerobic workout in your chair. Nearly everyone can reap the rewards of physical activity.

Stretching Basics

To stretch properly and safely, stretch slowly through the muscle's range of motion just until resistance is felt -- the point at which you feel a slight pull. Stop and hold each stretch for 10 to 20 seconds without bouncing. Bouncing activates a muscle's stretch reflex, making it tighter and shorter. This may cause tiny tears in the muscle, resulting in injury and soreness.


During the stretch, keep breathing rhythmically and slowly; do not hold your breath. Repeat each stretch a couple times -- or more if you like.

Here are some stretches to get you started:
  • Neck. Tilt head down and side to side -- but always return to a center starting point before changing direction. Avoid tilting head to the back, as it may compress the cervical spine, and don't roll your neck around, as this may put too much pressure on the cervical spine.

  • Shoulders. Lift shoulders up toward ears, hold, and release; repeat. Next, make numerous forward circles with one shoulder, then the other. Repeat in opposite direction. Rolling shoulders forward and back several times in each direction will help relieve some of the stress of tight muscles around the upper back, neck, and shoulders.

  • Back of shoulder, upper back. Bring one arm across the front of your body and pull it close to your chest with the opposite hand.

  • Triceps. Place a hand at nape of neck, with the elbow pointing up. With the opposite hand, press the elbow toward the back. Repeat with the other arm.

  • Chest. Stand in a doorway and grasp each side of it. Lean forward slightly until you feel a good stretch in your chest muscles, then hold.

  • Front of thigh. Holding on to a chair or wall to stabilize yourself, lift right heel toward your buttocks. Grab it with your right hand and continue to pull your foot up until you feel a gentle stretch in your thigh. Try to remain upright and open at the front of the hip on the side you are stretching. Try not to overflex the knee. Hold. 

  • Back of thigh. Stand facing a step, one stride away. Place heel of one leg on step, keeping leg straight. With the opposite hand, reach toward the foot, bending forward from the hip, not the waist. You may bend the leg you're standing on.

  • Calf and achilles. Standing with the balls of the feet on a step, drop heels down, keeping legs straight. Repeat several times. For Achilles, bend the knee a little bit when the heel is still down.
Everyone knows we need to exercise, but few of us really get the amount of physical activity we need to stay healthy. In our last section, we will offer some strategies to make exercising a part of your life.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Achieving Your Exercise Goals

Now that you've looked at aerobic activity, strength training, and stretching, you should construct a plan for the amount of calories you would like to burn. Jot down activities that you see yourself doing. What sounds interesting? What sounds like fun? About how much time would you like to spend doing them? When could you do them? How often? Do you feel like doing them at a moderately intense level or a vigorous level? Be realistic. Write down the activities you'd like to do and at what intensity level, how long you think you will do them, and how many calories you'll spend doing each activity. Make sure to include a variety of activities to prevent boredom. Now write out a plan for each day of the week. Studies show that if people say they are going to do something and write it down, they are more likely to follow through and do it.

Make Your
Own Weights!
To make your own weights, fill a couple of half-liter bottles with water. Or use a one-gallon milk jug with a built-in handle: Filled with water, the jug weighs 8.3 pounds. To make it heavier, fill it with sand or lead shot. 

Try to include aerobic and stretching activities every day. Add strength-building activities at least two or three times a week. Start gradually. Consider your current activity level and add a little to it. If you're not active on a regular basis, decide which two or three days of the week you could begin to be active. After you've accomplished that for a couple of weeks, revisit your plan and set a new goal to increase your activity a little more. An effective goal might be something like:
  • Starting on Monday, I will walk briskly for 15 minutes before and after work three days this week.

  • While watching TV this week, I will lift hand weights every other day and walk around the house during every commercial break during a one-hour show.
To motivate yourself even further, post your goal where you'll encounter it often, and share your goal with friends or relatives.

You may have to make a special effort to get yourself moving at first. It typically takes about two months to cross the threshold from dread to desire. Give yourself the time to get there, knowing that it will get easier. Take it one day at a time and stick with your plan. Soon you'll be disappointed if something interferes with your time to be active. Here are some techniques to move you along the path to being more active and loving it.

Attitude Makeover
  • If your attitude's holding you back, consider spending time with people who like to be active -- their positive attitudes can be contagious! Or read fitness magazine articles and success stories or a book about the rise of a sports star.

  • Talk positively to yourself about activity, write positive slogans out and post them.

  • Decide to change your attitude, and do it -- your mind is the most powerful tool you have to get yourself moving. For movement to become a part of your long-term lifestyle, it's important that you choose activities you'll enjoy. If you're not sure what you like, try different things. Perhaps join friends who do an activity you've never done before.

  • Decide to spend less of your leisure time in sedentary activities, such as watching TV or sitting in front of the computer. If you limit your "screen time," you'll automatically be more active.

  • Start a hobby that naturally includes activity: Do you like to hike, dance, bowl, golf, or shop 'til you drop?
Steps to Success

Once you've decided on a few activities to pursue, take these important steps to ensure your success:
  • Keep an activity log so you can follow your progress. Keep track of the times you were active, what activity you did, how long you did it, at what level of intensity, and how you felt during and afterward. This log can also serve as a trouble-shooting tool to see where sedentary activities creep in or what might be interfering with being active.

  • Get support. Ask family, friends, and colleagues to support your efforts.

  • Involve your family and friends. Think of things you can do together. Dance together to the radio or your favorite music, make play the focus of get-togethers rather than food, and have plenty of active toys on hand for adults and kids alike. Plan an outing that includes physical activity rather than sedentary activities.

  • Give yourself permission to take time off. Especially when you're sick or feeling fatigued. After you're feeling better, you can resume a low-level activity plan and work back up to your regular routine. Listen to your body, and stop activity if you have chest discomfort or pain, dizziness, severe headache, or other unusual symptoms. If they don't go away, get medical attention immediately.

  • Celebrate your successes. Give yourself a nonfood reward for reaching a goal.
Though many people believe that the USDA Dietary Guidelines involve only food, they also serve to recommend good amounts of exercise. Getting the right amount of exercise each day takes just a little bit of knowledge and willpower. With the right information, you can be on your way to a happier, healthier lifestyle.



This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.