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Feature Articles: Eating Well, Dietary Guidelines for Americans


man and woman riding bicycles

Increasing physical activity

Greta Hopke, RD; Candance Gabel, MS, RD, LD, Associate State Nutrition Specialist; & Ellen Schuster, MS, RD, Associate State Nutrition Specialist, University of Missouri Extension


Take a moment to think about how much time you spend sitting in front of a computer or television each day. Compare that to the amount of time you are physically active each day. Are you surprised by these numbers?


According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 36 percent of adults in the Midwest were physically inactive in 2001. Physical activity, which CDC defines as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles resulting in energy expenditure, is important for a healthy lifestyle. It has been shown that regular physical activity and reduced sedentary activity decreases the risk of certain chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure, stroke, coronary artery disease, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer and osteoporosis. Physical activity also helps to maintain a healthy body weight and promotes psychological well-being.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends increasing physical activity beyond your usual activity level for improved health.

Recommendations for physical activity:


  • At least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity on most, preferably all, days of the week to reduce the risk of chronic disease. For most people, increasing the intensity or duration of activity can provide greater health benefits.
  • Adults: To help manage body weight and prevent unhealthy weight gain, 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity activity on most days of the week is needed. It is also important not to exceed caloric intake requirements.
  • Adults: To sustain weight loss, participate in 60 to 90 minutes of daily moderate-intensity physical activity while not exceeding caloric intake requirements.
  • Children and adolescents: Engage in 60 minutes of physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week.
  • Pregnant women: If you do not have medical complications, participate in at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, if not all, days of the week. Avoid activities with a high risk of falling or abdominal trauma.
  • Breastfeeding women: Participating in regular exercise does not negatively affect the mother's ability to successfully breastfeed.
  • Older adults: Engaging in regular physical activity provides the same benefits identified for all adults. You may also experience fewer functional declines typically associated with aging.

Although the recommendations for physical activity are given in 30- to 90-minute intervals, it is the daily total that is important. Physical activity is just as effective for promoting health and burning calories when completed in shorter intervals. If you are unable to exercise for 30 or 60 minutes at a time, it is as effective to split your activity into shorter bouts and workout throughout the day.

In addition to increasing regular physical activity, it is also important to replace sedentary leisure activities, those that require little energy expenditure, with activities that require physical activity. Reducing sedentary activities has been shown to be helpful in treating and preventing excessive weight gain in children and adolescents.

Examples of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activities

Moderate Physical Activity Vigorous Physical Activity

Bicycling (<10 mph)


Golf (walking and carrying clubs)

Walking (3.5 mph)

Light gardening or yard work

Weight lifting (general light workout)


Running or jogging (5 mph)

Bicycling (>10 mph)



Walking (4.5 mph)

Heavy yard work (chopping wood)

Weight lifting (vigorous effort)

Basketball (vigorous)

The Dietary Guidelines emphasize that different types of physical activity (resistance exercises, stretching and cardiovascular conditioning) are important for physical fitness. Resistance exercises, such as weight training and resistance band workouts, when performed at least 2 days per week, improve muscular strength, endurance, and maintain or increase muscle mass. Stretching exercises help to increase and maintain flexibility. Cardiovascular conditioning, such as jogging or walking, provides many health benefits and helps in weight loss. Vigorous activity burns more calories per unit of time than moderate activity.

Men over 40 and women over 50 who are planning to begin a vigorous exercise program, or have either chronic disease or risk factors for chronic disease should consult a physician to design a safe, effective program. Avoid dehydration by drinking fluids regularly during activity and drinking several glasses of water after physical activity, especially in hot temperatures or during long periods of activity.


Adapted from Dietary Guidelines for Americans, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, January 2005.


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Last update: Wednesday, June 08, 2011